On liberals, the left, and free speech

by Corey Robin on April 27, 2017

When I was in college and in graduate school (so the 1980s and 1990s), the dividing line on free speech debates was, for the most part, a pretty conventional liberal/left divide. (I’m excluding the right.) That is, self-defined liberals tended to be absolutists on free speech. Self-defined leftists—from radical feminists to radical democrats to critical race theorists to Marxists—tended to be more critical of the idea of free speech.

What’s interesting about the contemporary moment, which I don’t think anyone’s really remarked upon, is that that clean divide has gotten blurry. There were always exceptions to that divide, I know: back in the 1980s and 1990s, some radical feminists were critical of the anti-free speech position within feminism; some liberals, like Cass Sunstein and Owen Fiss, were more sensitive to how power differentials in society constrained speech, and thus were more open to more regulatory approaches to speech; some Marxists were always leery of the critiques of free speech. Even so, there was a divide. That divide hasn’t now reversed, but it’s no longer the case that it maps so easily onto a simple and clear divide between liberalism and the left.

From what I see online, a lot of mainstream liberals today are far less absolutist in their defense of free speech, particularly on campuses; indeed, that absolutist position increasingly seems like the outlier among liberals. And parts of the left are now taking the more absolutist position. Once upon a time, a Jonathan Chait would denounce leftist campus critics of free speech, and it all made sense. Today, when he does that, he seems completely out to lunch: a lot of the people he’s talking about are conventional liberals just like him.

(On a related note, there was a funny moment on Twitter yesterday, when the ACLU defended Ann Coulter’s right to speak at Berkeley. Twitter liberals freaked out in surprise: the ACLU, defending Ann Coulter’s right to speak! How could that be? None of them seemed to remember or realize that once upon a time, back in the late 1970s, the ACLU defended real Nazis—as in members of the American Nazi Party—marching in Skokie, a Chicago suburb whose residents included many Holocaust survivors.)

Just so we’re clear. Nothing in this post is meant to be normative or prescriptive; I’ve tended to stay out of these debates of late, in part because they mostly don’t speak to my experience of campus free speech. Our challenge at Brooklyn College has never really been how to keep speakers off campus; it has almost always been how to get them on campus.

All I’m doing here is making a simple, and I believe non-normative empirical observation: that something new is happening on the divide between liberalism and the left over the question of free speech. Unlike the recent past, the free speech argument now cuts right across that divide. And to that extent, it takes us back to an earlier moment, in the 1930s and 1940s, when American liberals and the left were also in dialogue, and taking a mixture of cross-cutting positions, on the question of free speech.

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Chatter chatter bang bang

by Andrew Brown on April 27, 2017

This is a novel of ideas which proceeds through pages of earnest conversation interrupted by cataclysmic explosions or scarcely less cataclysmic fucks after which another set of characters take up another earnest conversation until the next explosion. Chatter chatter bang bang – and this time the magic car is taking us back to the late Sixties. The counterculture in Walkaway is a very recognisable enlargement of the world according to the Whole Earth Catalog, in which technology and computers and spontaneous co-operation will combine to deliver us from evil. You reach the better world by separating from the Evil Big Daddy world through a tunnel of music, sex and drugs and when you have made this journey of rebirth you build the new Jerusalem, a shining Shoreditch on a hill.

Since I am going to be rude about the ideas, it’s worth saying right now that the novel, is much more interesting than the world that it is set in, because the novel has a couple of complex and well realised characters, among them the heroine’s evil father. And the consideration of how you deal with the existential dread of a computer program which realises it’s a human being is science fiction at its best.

But the world in which this utopia is worked out has fatal problems. [click to continue…]

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Yglesias on Obama

by Henry on April 26, 2017

Matthew Yglesias’s piece sharply criticizing Obama for taking a $400,000 speaker fee to talk at a conference organized by Cantor Fitzgerald is getting a lot of pushback. I find this a little startling – while I disagree with MY’s defense of centrism, the underlying argument – that there is something sleazy about former officials going on the speaker’s circuit for astronomical fees – seems so obviously right as to scarcely merit further discussion, let alone vigorous disagreement. [click to continue…]

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Technological advances change the world. That’s partly because of what they are, but even more because of the social changes they enable. New technologies upend power balances. They give groups new capabilities, increased effectiveness, and new defenses. The Internet decades have been a never-ending series of these upendings. We’ve seen existing industries fall and new industries rise. We’ve seen governments become more powerful in some areas and less in others. We’ve seen the rise of a new form of governance: a multi-stakeholder model where skilled individuals can have more power than multinational corporations or major governments.

Among the many power struggles, there is one type I want to particularly highlight: the battles between the nimble individuals who start using a new technology first, and the slower organizations that come along later. [click to continue…]

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No Exit?

by Henry on April 25, 2017

 

One of the people who blurbed Walkaway enthusiastically is William Gibson, whose own most recent book, The Peripheral covers many of the same themes that Walkaway does. The rise of extreme inequality described by Piketty and others, as the super-rich become so different from everyone else as nearly to be a distinct species. Accelerating technological change so that there are no jobs, or only very bad ones, for most people. A post-industrial landscape, in which the wreckage of the industrial era provides valuable resources for those in the new era.

Yet the two books draw radically different conclusions from roughly similar premises. Gibson’s book is a dystopia, in which the rich are so powerful as to be, effectively, beyond challenge. The only possibilities for agency on the part of anyone else are in the interstices, the implied spaces within the structures of the internecine conflicts of the elites. Walkaway, in contrast, is a book about the beginnings of a utopia. The characters frequently quote variants of Alasdair Gray’s dictum that one should “work as if you lived in the early days of a better nation.” Above is a detail from a print by Gray, based on his frontispiece for Book Four of Lanark. It displays the forces through which the state, “foremost of the beasts of earth for pride,” maintains its domination, with the machineries of war to the left, and those of law and thought to the right. At the end of Walkaway, Doctorow’s characters live in a society which appear to have mostly escaped from both kinds of domination. [click to continue…]

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Cory Doctorow seminar

by Henry on April 25, 2017

Cory Doctorow’s new book, Walkaway, a novel, an argument and a utopia, all bound up into one, is out today. And we’re running a seminar on it. The participants.

  • Henry Farrell blogs at Crooked Timber.
  • Maria Farrell blogs at Crooked Timber.
  • John Holbo blogs at Crooked Timber.
  • Neville Morley is professor of classics and ancient history at Exeter.
  • Julia Powles is a prolific writer on privacy and technology, and a researcher at Cornell Tech.
  • Eric Rauchway blogs at Crooked Timber.
  • Belle Waring blogs at Crooked Timber.

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Lest we forget

by John Quiggin on April 25, 2017

Today is Anzac Day, the anniversary of the disastrous Gallipoli campaign which marked the first major involvement of Australian and New Zealand troops in the Great War. In their memory, I’ll quote the man most directly responsible for the disaster, describing the war of which it was a part (H/T Daniel Quiggin)

Germany having let Hell loose kept well in the van of terror; but she was followed step by step by the desperate and ultimately avenging nations she had assailed. Every outrage against humanity or international law was repaid by reprisals often on a greater scale and longer duration. No truce or parley mitigated the strife of the armies. The wounded died between the lines; the dead moldered into the soil. Merchant ships and neutral ships and hospital ships were sunk on the seas and all on board left to their fate, or killed as they swam. Every effort was made to starve whole nations into submission without regard to age or sex. Cities and monuments were smashed by artillery. Bombs from the air were cast down indiscriminately. Poison gas in many forms stifled or seared the soldiers. Liquid fire was projected upon their bodies. Men fell from the air in flames, or were smothered, often slowly, in the dark recesses of the sea. The fighting strength of armies was limited only by the manhood of their countries. Europe and large parts of Asia and Africa became one vast battlefield on which after years of struggle not armies but nations broke and ran. When it was all over, Torture and Cannibalism were the only two expedients that the civilized, scientific, Christian states had been able to deny themselves: and these were of doubtful utility.
As it turned out, even this assessment was too optimistic. The second phase of the great world war saw the end of the few limits that had been observed in the first.

To pay respect to the Anzacs and those who followed them, we should stop repeating the mistakes and crimes of those who sent them to their deaths.

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Macron leads!

by Chris Bertram on April 24, 2017

Macron has won the first round of the French Presidential election, and I for one am very pleased at the outcome. In the first place, I’m pleased because Marine Le Pen and the Front National have not done better despite circumstances, such as the Nice and Bataclan attacks, that might have been expected to give them a further boost. This suggests that, at least in France, right-wing populism has hit a limit, for the time being. Second I’m pleased because I think Macron probably has more about him than the Blair and Clinton comparisons and the childish chanting of the mantras of “neoliberal”, “austerity”, “banker” and “elite” by the Mélenchon claque suggests. He’s someone both committed to the EU and committed to changing it, whereas Mélenchon was all about making demands and walking away, in the vague direction of Lexit, as soon as the other member-states turned him down. Unlike Clinton and Blair he has done what he has done without a massive party machine behind him, he’s exhibited a lot of political courage and his bet has paid off. Now that we face the second-round, we see Mélenchon refusing to back Macron against Le Pen, which to my mind indicates that Mélenchon is an unserious poseur, but then his enthusiasms for Hugo Chavez and his apologetics for Assad ought to have been a clue to that.

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Hey, Kids, Comics! – Vienna Genesis Edition

by John Holbo on April 23, 2017

I have been down my work hole for weeks. Apologies, plain people of Crooked Timber. Also, I haven’t worked on On Beyond Zarathustra for months. Maybe that’s even worse. Gotta get back into the good stuff over the summer. Here is a downpayment. I’ve found the first occurrence of a Dr. Seuss-style tree in Western art. It’s from the Vienna Genesis, which is pretty awesome proto-comics and you should check out all the pages at Wikipedia.

I don’t recall Scott McCloud saying anything about this in Understanding Comics. If you want to read a confusing scholarly discussion, try Franz Wickhoff on Roman Art. I think it’s the earliest occurrence of ‘continuous narrative’, also ‘illusionism’. And his use of the latter is eccentric, so you are sure to be the life of the party discussing his ideas!

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Sunday photoblogging: Pézenas, Rue Conti

by Chris Bertram on April 23, 2017

Pézenas, Rue Conti

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Fourteen years of Krauthammer days

by Henry on April 22, 2017

Today is the fourteenth anniversary of the day when Charles Krauthammer announced to the world:

Hans Blix had five months to find weapons. He found nothing. We’ve had five weeks. Come back to me in five months. If we haven’t found any, we will have a credibility problem.

It’s now been 168 months since that confident pronouncement – or, put differently, we’ve seen 33.6 Krauthammer Credibility Intervals come, and then go, without any sign of self-assessment, let alone personal acceptance of responsibility for his prominent cheerleading for a war that led to hundreds of thousands of deaths. Still out there opining.

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Individual emission budgets & footprints

by Ingrid Robeyns on April 22, 2017

It’s Global Earth Day, and this year the theme is environmental and climate literacy. I’d like to take us through an argument and a set of calculations. If what I write is correct, it only illustrates (but quite vividly, I think) the mess we’re in. So I hope that someone will convince me that what follows is wrong, or that the pessimistic conclusions do not follow.

[click to continue…]

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Ada Palmer seminar

by Henry on April 20, 2017

The seminar with Ada Palmer on Seven Surrenders and its prequel, Too Like the Lightning is now complete. Below, a list of the participants with links to their individual posts, to make it easier to keep everything together (a PDF will be forthcoming). All posts are available in reverse chronological order here. Comments should be open, for anyone who wants to talk about the seminar (or the books) as a whole.

The participants:

  • Ada Palmer is an Assistant Professor of Early Modern European History at the University of Chicago.

The Dystopian Question and Minorities of One [Response to Emrys and Gladstone]

Reappropriated Histories and a Different Set of Tools [Response to Morley and H. Farrell]

Unusual Experience and Second Hand Plato [Response to M. Farrell and Waring]

Not Nothing and Speculating Late [Response to Holbo and Konstantinou

A Dialog on Narrative Voice, Complicity, and Intimacy [Dialogue with Jo Walton]

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Between Jo Walton and Ada Palmer.

Continuing from Jo’s essay “Complicity and the Reader

Jo Walton is a good friend, and there is little we love than sinking our teeth into a fascinating aspect of the craft of writing.  We’ve discussed questions of narration, voice and complicity in Terra Ignota many times, so much so that much of what I would say in response to Jo I already have, and she’s already addressed it in her essay.  So I thought that the best way to bring something really new, and to round out this delightful seminar, was to have a fresh dialog with Jo about the subject, and to share it—in all its rawness and discovery—with you.  And once again, thank you all for reading so deeply, thinking, discussing, sharing your thoughts, responding, and reading more—discussion like this seminar the happiest fate that can befall a book.  And an author. [click to continue…]

UK GE17 Open Thread

by Maria on April 18, 2017

Well in fairness, it hardly feels like summer is coming unless there is a massive, polarising electoral campaign in the UK.

On watching the PM call the election, issuing the death knell for Labour – a sentence the party is only to happy to carry out on itself – I had the same grim satisfaction I remember from boarding school, when the head-nun blasted apart a girl we all knew was innocent. We all stood in a semi-circle around the weeping victim of the precision tongue-lashing and watched as we’d been instructed to, sympathetic, appalled but also weirdly thrilled. Not by the spectacle itself, but by a grim gladness that even the pretence of even-handedness had finally been dropped. The bully in a habit was no longer acting otherwise. There’s always a next victim, and a next one, and in that place, the subsequent victim was me (public verbal demolition AND a face-slapping – from a great height, you fall a long way), but I can’t deny there was satisfaction, then, too.

Let’s watch this nasty show play out as what it really is.

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