Let The Kooks Speak

They will only embarrass themselves.

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Holocaust deniers have no arguments. This is because, whenever they attempt to formulate arguments, they are destined to run headlong into the stubborn facts of the historical record, with its mountains of documentary and eyewitness testimony showing the full scope of the Nazi horror. For this reason, usually the best way to deal with a Holocaust denier is to allow him to hang himself with his own words. Because the historical reality of the Holocaust is among the most well-established of factual certitudes, anyone attempting to deny it will quickly be forced to resort to babble rather than reason. It is the simplest thing in the world to humiliate such people.

A strange thing happened in Brooklyn recently. Visitors to the Brooklyn Commons, a left-wing café and event space, noticed something horrifying on the bulletin board: a flyer advertising an upcoming event at the Commons, on “9/11 and our Political Crisis,” with “investigative journalist” Christopher Bollyn. From a distance, the flyer didn’t look like much, but in small print it spoke of a plot by “neocons and their Zionist partners in crime” to dominate the world. Christopher Bollyn, as it turns out, is not only a 9/11 conspiracy theorist, but a raving anti-Semite who thinks the Jews assassinated JFK.

Many were baffled by why the Brooklyn Commons would hold such an event. Why on earth would a progressive café provide a platform for a blatant racist? It was yet another confirmation of the (true, and depressing) fact that in certain parts of the radical left, it’s not terribly uncommon to find anti-Semitic conspiracy theorists.

Outrage was quickly directed against the Commons, who were met with demands to cancel the event. Interestingly, a large part of this came from the radical left itself. Though often accused of being unwilling to purge anti-Semitism from their ranks, leftists quickly and vigorously condemned the Commons. Rabble-rousing journal The Baffler called the Commons’ hosting of the event a “grievous misjudgment” and demanded its cancellation. Jacobin magazine, which has worked with the Commons, expressed shock and seconded the demand. The Brooklyn Institute for Social Research, an organization that puts on left-wing teaching sessions, announced its decision to “remove all of our programming from the Brooklyn Commons despite the significant logistical and financial challenges that this decision entails.” On social media, the Commons was treated with contempt and disgust.

Astonishingly, the Commons went ahead and let the event proceed. The Commons’ owner, Melissa Ennen, defended the event on free speech grounds. In a statement, Ennen said that she allows anyone to book the space and hold events there, and does not investigate their views:

I did not research the speaker before accepting the rental. I do not have the time, resources or inclination to censor the hundreds of groups who rent the space. Since launching in 2010, the list of renters has included local Tea Partiers, conservative promoters of charter schools, explicitly anti-union corporations, elected officials who voted for the Patriot Act and wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Ennen made no defense of Bollyn’s views. Instead, she said that she had a reason for allowing racists to book the space. As she explained:

I agree that all forms of racism should have no place in leftist spaces, but in my opinion, to get to the root of racist thinking, confrontation works better than censorship.

Ennen finally quoted a story from a man named Paul Frantz, who in the 1970s had attended a talk by notorious eugenicist (and inventor of the transistor) William Shockley. Frantz explained that by listening to Shockley speak, he realized just how wrong Shockley truly was. Shockley’s blatherings about genes and IQ taught Frantz that just because someone was a Nobel laureate, they didn’t necessarily know what they were talking about.

On social media, Ennen’s defense was mocked. One person called it a “ridiculous defense of an indefensible booking,” others suggested it was a pathetic excuse, one that offensively invoked free speech and anti-censorship to justify giving a platform to a racist. “Racism is not like a vaccine,” a commenter said. “We don’t need to expose everyone to it to make sure they don’t catch racism.” Others laughed at Ennen’s invocation of free speech. Free speech, they said, means the government can’t censor you, not that you have to help racists spread their message.

Many of these arguments seem compelling on the surface. That the café could defend Bollyn’s talk is almost inconceivable. But once we think through the actual implications of the criticisms, it becomes less obvious that the Brooklyn Commons was wrong to permit the event.

If we take the owner’s words to be true, the Brooklyn Commons is set up, as the name implies, as a “commons.” It’s a space that anyone can rent, to put on any event they like. It’s therefore designed to be “democratic,” in the sense that every single person has an equal ability (presuming they can afford the rental fee) to gather there and give whatever kind of presentation they like.

Ennen says that she takes this principle very seriously indeed. (In fact, she refused to apologize, saying that she was willing to lose friendships over the issue because she feels so strongly about the question of censorship.) Thus, even though she herself is a progressive, Ennen has allowed groups she opposes including the Tea Party to use the space. According to her, when she say anyone can book the space, she means it.

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If that’s true, it is less clear that the Brooklyn Commons should have canceled the speech. People argued that the Commons was “hosting” and “providing a platform for” a racist. But “hosting” implies that the Brooklyn Commons invited the speaker, and the Commons only “provided a platform” in the same way that it provides a platform to everyone. If I set up a true Speakers’ Corner, the entire point is to allow anyone to talk. The very moment I start introducing restrictions (“except racists”), it’s no longer an open forum. The important question, therefore, is “should anti-Semites be given the equal freedom to book an open public event space?”

We can draw analogies. Say we introduce a community arts program, which offers free art supplies to starving painters. If one painter paints disgusting racist portraits, should we stop giving him paints? If we have a community typewriter-lending program, in which we rent low-cost vintage typewriters to hipster poets, should we refuse to lend typewriters to someone who writes misogynistic rap lyrics? Some people may feel that we should make these distinctions. But it’s important to acknowledge what that entails: someone has to be empowered to assess a painter’s art to determine whether it is racist or not.

This may seem like a sort of “slippery slope” argument. But it’s not quite that. Instead it points out that the moment you start making content distinctions (of whatever kind), you have assumed the power to determine who should and shouldn’t speak in a place. You might have very, very good reasons for thinking that a particular person has such hideous beliefs that they shouldn’t speak (and you might be right). But it becomes your determination. Dissident scholar Norman Finkelstein, himself a victim of censorship, tried to explain this fundamental principle of free speech in a recent lecture to the Communist Party of Great Britain. Finkelstein, citing John Stuart Mill, asks the communists why they should be the ones to determine which speech to authorize. (Finkelstein also pointed out that if you’re certain a speaker has nothing of value to say, it is all the more reason not to be afraid to let him speak.)

The authority point is extremely simple and very important. The reason for being a free-speech absolutist is not  that all viewpoints are equally legitimate, but that deciding which viewpoints are legitimate involves assuming the power to start making speech distinctions. And unless that person is infallible, people will inevitably be wrongly censored sometimes. After all, it’s easy to see how this could happen. If you’ve refused to rent to the anti-Semite, what about the Tea Partier? They’re racists too! And what about the neoconservatives? They caused 600,000 deaths! Soon the entire notion of a “freely accessible public event space” disappears.

But why is this about “censorship” or “free speech” at all? Whenever discussions like this come up, about the decisions of private entities to permit or not permit events, one common reaction is to point out that the First Amendment applies only to the government. Private entities, they say, are under no obligation to honor people’s free speech rights. 

Yet it’s unclear why only government acts can qualify as restrictions on speech, in a world where the government is not the only entity capable of exercising power over people. If corporations control access to the means of speaking publicly, then “private censorship” can stifle public speech just as effectively as governments can. Consider Twitter. Twitter is a private corporation. The First Amendment does not apply to it, and it can get rid of whichever users it pleases. Because of this, when conservatives are kicked off Twitter and whine about being censored, liberals quickly point out that their free speech has not, technically, been violated.

Yet because everyone is on it, Twitter has tremendous power to control public discussions. For journalists and writers, Twitter is an incredibly important professional resource, where connections are made and projects are hatched. Some people have built their entire careers on Twitter. Thus they must stay on Twitter’s good side, because it has the power to vaporize their professional lives, as it did to one odious right-wing pundit, if they displease the corporation. Thus far, they have generally limited their bans to defensible cases (though not always) but there is no restriction on Twitter’s ability to stifle its users, thus all are dependent on its continued benevolence. 

These days, so much of the “commons” (if by this, we mean “the place where public discussions occur”) is privatized. That gives corporations like Facebook a tremendous power to censor speech (as it did recently, in sending a haunting Vietnam War image down the memory hole, before meeting with public outcry). These powers may be distinguishable from that of a government in principle (you can always go and start your own Facebook!), but in practice the power of corporations over people’s lives is nearly unlimited. 

So if we confine “free speech” to government acts, we are confining it to a very narrow realm. If parks are private, and social media is private, and event spaces are private, then this kind of “free speech” doesn’t guarantee anything at all. It certainly doesn’t mean being guaranteed the ability to speak. If one is not prohibited from speaking, but there is nowhere one can speak, then the idea that one is entitled to speak freely is meaningless. Some people say “the right to speak is not the right to be heard.” But this only supports the Brooklyn Commons’ position. Bollyn had the right to rent a space and set up a PowerPoint in it. He wasn’t entitled to have anyone come to his event.

But in that case, does everyone have to let everyone speak all the time? Should racists be given television shows? Should crackpot climate change deniers be put alongside experts? Should there be no such thing as a safe space? Do we have to let misogynists speak at feminist events? Of course not. It’s not that all viewpoints must be included all the time, it’s that there should be freely-accessible common spaces in which all viewpoints can be heard. It’s not that Current Affairs should publish every submission we receive, it’s that everyone should have the equal ability to start a website (and if ISPs started blocking anti-Semitic websites, that would implicate free speech despite being non-governmental). Every corner need not be a Speaker’s Corner, but there should always be a Speaker’s Corner. And since there are very few true public “commons” spaces, it’s admirable for the Brooklyn Commons to be one of those.

Of course, a crucial question is whether Ennen is telling the truth that the Commons is in fact a commons. If Ennen has previously refused any invitations on subject-matter rather than logistical grounds, her entire defense crumbles. If she would refuse a booking from the Klan or Dick Cheney, then it is hypocritical (and a minimization of anti-Semitism) to permit Bollyn. Some have suggested that the Commons’ actions in whitewashing the event (and Ennen’s own history with the 9/11 Truth movement) implied that they were more sympathetic to Bollyn than they let on.

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But the wider point is less about the specific behavior of the Commons, and more about the arguments people made in opposing that behavior. Separate from the factual determination about whether the Commons’ representations of its own motives are true, many on the left are skeptical of the commons principle in itself. They argue that racist speech has no value, and that “free speech” is about not having the police confiscate your printing press, rather than being entitled to particular kinds of public discussion spaces. But if “lack of value” is the relevant question, then someone has to determine that value. And if people are free to rent discussion spaces in theory, but in practice nobody will rent to them, then the “right” carries no real-world effect in enabling speech. (Again, this is not to imply that people should be required to rent to all comers, but that someone who did rent to all comers shouldn’t be condemned.) If we solely conceive of “free speech” as a legal entitlement rather than a social value, that freedom will exist solely within the text of the law. 

There is an important pragmatic argument here, also. Bigots may find their cause helped by efforts to censor them. As commenter Samuel Chance pointed out, by keeping yourself from hearing racists, you do not thereby eliminate racism. In fact, the opposite can be true. As Chance wrote:

Bad ideas are best confronted rather than suppressed. If you deny ignorance a public forum, the ignorance doesn’t die, it grows in private. When you later are forced to confront it, it might by then be stronger than you.

It’s important to argue with Nazis not because Nazis can be convinced, but because people who are not yet Nazis need to see why the Nazis are wrong. They need to see that the left’s principles make sense, that we are doing more than just asserting that the issue is beyond debate. As a recent cartoon points out, while those on the left tend to simply declare that debates are so settled that arguments do not need to be put forth, those on the right happily dispense voluminous literature on why leftist arguments are wrong. As a result, the politically naive can lack the critical intellectual tools necessary to keep themselves from being seduced by poisonous arguments.

There are several things one can do when an anti-Semite announces an event. It’s true you could protest the event space, for not canceling the event. You could boycott it, and try to convince other groups not to hold events there. You could (at the extreme end) threaten to drive it out of business, or at least make it so toxic that few people wish to be associated with it. (Indeed, the Brooklyn Commons owner reported receiving emails threatening dire consequences for The Commons.”)

But you could also take a different approach. Instead of targeting the event space, whose crime was not to distinguish among those to whom it rented space, you could target the anti-Semitic 9/11 Truther whose event poses the problem to begin with. You could hand out literature to all attendees, explaining why this man is odious and should be ignored. You could stage a massive protest outside, a protest against the event itself rather than the event space. You could even attend the event, and perform calculated symbolic disruptive acts.

But you could go beyond even this. You could demand that the event space allow another event, this time a teach-in about the problem of anti-Semitism. At that event, you could perform an important self-examination on the question of whether the left has done enough to combat anti-Semitism. Is the problem that we are allowing them to rent event space? Or is it deeper?

I’ve been told that my view that “the solution to bad speech is more speech” is romantic and unrealistic. The idea of civil public discourse is a fantasy; you don’t reason with fascists, you destroy them. And I have to admit, all of that sounds very persuasive.

But let’s look at the actual facts of what ended up happening in Brooklyn. The Commons didn’t cancel its event, despite pressure. Protesters showed up, and mayhem ensued. Bollyn did speak. But according to witnesses, he simply rambled incoherently for nearly two hours to a tiny group of bored misfits. The AlterNet writer who went said it was a “pathetic spectacle” with the “supposedly brave iconoclast, prevaricating for a half-empty room of gullible dimwits while dressed like a dad at a PTA meeting.” The Daily Beast’s Jacob Siegel wrote that “not long after the talk started, people started to nod off,” and that and that once you “strip away everything else…  here was a middle-aged man dully clicking through slides.” So Bollyn gave his speech, and he was a failure who converted nobody.

Whatever theoretical skepticism people might have about letting racists speak, here we can chalk up a victory for open public debate. Bollyn didn’t have his event canceled, he was allowed to say exactly as he pleased. Nobody in his lunatic fringe group could claim he was censored. The most destructive weapon against Bollyn was his own words.

I tend to think that left-wing critics of free speech are giving a gift to the racists. One of the most constant rhetorical themes of the American racist right is “they won’t listen to our arguments, they just call us racists and try to shut us up.” And because it’s true that the left doesn’t listen to their arguments, and just calls them racists and tries to shut them up, credulous people may think their views are right. This is precisely what happened in the debate surrounding The Bell Curve. Many people denounced the book without having read it. Then conservatives pointed out, correctly, that the critics hadn’t even read the book they were criticizing. That makes it look like the left is in fear of the truth. But those that did read the book had an easy time showing its massive errors of statistical reasoning. (And in fact, years before, Noam Chomsky had already diligently vaporized one of the co-authors’ intelligence theories.) 

Thus it’s easy to win if you stay focused on the truth. I will have the debate on race and intelligence any day of the week, any time, any place. I will have it because the racists should have their bluff called. Of Bollyn, an attendee said that “the facts and conclusions he’s reached are what these people don’t want to hear.” But when they say that nobody wants to listen to the facts, they’re wrong. Not me. I’d love to hear these supposed “facts.” I say bring on the facts! What they want is for me to call them racists and keep them from speaking. What they really, really don’t want is to have anyone actually examine their arguments. Once you let such people open their mouths, you hear how little they have to say.

In the Bollyn case specifically, we also saw some positive good come out of the event. The protesters who came to the event were far-left radicals, who detest anti-Semitism so much that they want its speakers to be prevented from renting space. The pictures of those radicals serve as an important rebuttal to those who associate leftist critics of Israel with anti-Semitism. If Brooklyn Commons had quietly refused the booking, we would never have had such public evidence of the left’s hatred of anti-Semitism.

The question of “free speech for racists” is both incredibly difficult and incredibly important. The instinct to take the easy route, and make sure people with hideous beliefs cannot have platforms, is an understandable one. But you don’t get rid of a belief by pretending it isn’t there. The Bollyn event itself was outrageous. But what happened is exactly what should have happened. People organized against him, to show where they stood. The left did what it should do: insistently refused to put up with anti-Semitic bigotry. And, in the end, nobody ended up listening to Christopher Bollyn. 

So let the kooks speak. Let them rent whatever spaces they like. There is no easier way to prove their insignificance than to let them have their say.

Author: Nathan J. Robinson

is the editor of Current Affairs.