This is a follow up to part one, which explored the historical tension and relationship of liberal and leftist communities, both in general and within the Unitarian Universalist faith.
While there is a centuries-long dialogue between liberal and leftist traditions, sometimes constructive and sometimes conflict-ridden, this relationship does not exist in isolation. The political and cultural Right is ideologically opposed to both liberals and leftists, and has benefitted from the two groups being at odds with one another. Reactionary forces have fruitfully employed divide-and-conquer. This continues to the present day. I will examine this largely through the lens of the Unitarian Universalist experience, though trends and events that involve larger milieu will be involved.
Free Speech: Tip of the Spear
I was recommended P. E. Moskowitz’s The Case Against Free Speech (released in August 2019) by a UU minister during our conversations on the rise of white nationalism and the alt-right pipeline. As one might expect, the title is not a comprehensive summary of the content of the book. A key point made is that free speech has been an issue triumphed by the political Right, which uses it in a bad-faith way to support the powerful and allow dangerous groups to organize and propagate.
You’ve probably heard their arguments before: They claim to be opposed to censorship, “no-platforming” (when people are excluded from online or offline forums because of the views they express), and any attempts to discourage the open expression of ideas. These figures—who self-identify as classical liberals, conservatives, and libertarians—say that their project is completely non-ideological: It’s just about giving everyone a fair hearing.
But these same free-speech warriors went mum earlier this month when one of their own, Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson, met with Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban, who has bragged about making Hungary “an illiberal state, a non-liberal state,” and has provoked mass protests for cracking down on academic freedom. Crowder’s defenders have also neglected to mention that he once went with a camera crew to the workplace of a commenter he disagreed with, harassing them and trying to get them fired. Indeed, IDW members and their acolytes have repeatedly fought against allowing those they disagree with a platform to speak.
It’s easy to dismiss the outrage and inconsistency of online free-speech warriors who profit off of controversy. But there’s a more serious and troubling dynamic at play: The “free speech movement,” including not only online pundits but also think tanks, academics, activist groups, and their mainstream popularizers, has always been about free speech for the right—and suppressing the speech of everyone else. It is by and large funded by right-wing billionaires like the Koch brothers, who whip up anger about the “intolerant left” in order to stymie opposition to their social, economic, and political agenda.
Free speech has been a key wedge issue between liberal and leftist communities. This is a very old phenomenon, with the planned Nazi march through the village of Skokie, Illinois being a historical example. The American Civil Liberties Union is proud of its long history of defending hate speech (and actions), being the prototypical liberal organization that looks at right-wing hate through a rights-based framework. The National Lawyers Guild (NLG), which has long been to the left of the ACLU on most issues, has criticized how this defense works in practice, such as the propagation of far-right discourse and hate speech on college campuses. Note that the NLG article refers to the ACLU as “our allies”, indicating that free speech is an issue that can create tension, but does not mean that liberal and left communities need to fragment in the face of right-wing assertiveness.
There are two ways the Right uses free speech to attempt to drive a wedge between liberals and leftists (or between certain degrees and tendencies within those two groups):
- Latch onto a fringe group without resources. As the Prospect article mentions, there are now a group of “free speech proponents” (largely online, who exploit controversy to make money and enter mainstream conversations) that will promote any view, however marginal it is in the real world. This may not be material supporting them with money, but instead given them massive amounts of free publicity, and making liberal and leftist groups form a response to them (which can foster a divide).
- Directly fund divisive individuals and groups. The Federalist Society has been enormously influential in driving a rightward turn in the American judiciary, and directly places controversial and/or hateful speakers in places like college campuses. If a divide opens up on how liberals and leftists should respond, it is instigated by the Right. The Right has all the initiative and drives the conversation. When a liberal group like the ACLU expends time, resources, and political capital to defend this speech, it is doing so in service of right-wing aims beyond the speech itself. The Koch brothers and other billionaire reactionaries are wasting a finite amount of liberal and leftist resources.
Leftist Stereotypes and SJW Hysteria
Another tactic these right-wing grifter/propagandists (they’re really one and the same) engage in is to promote left-wing (or “left-wing”) voices in ways that make them seem unreasonable, violent, or otherwise antithetical to “free speech” (the right-wing version that liberals have largely embraced or at least not rejected). There are a few variants of this:
- Promote a truly marginal view. Sometimes there are just bad takes on social media or protest speeches. These voices are not representative of larger communities or ideologies, they’re just idiosyncratic and flawed. Note that this doesn’t mean the person is a member of a marginalized group, but that the position itself is marginal- one with no real currency among any existing organizing group or collective.
- Promote a reasonable view but remove its context and otherwise butcher it. You can take a good take on social media or a protest and make it look like the first bullet point through selective editing. We see this all the time with the Project Veritas crowd and its imitators, who have since the ACORN “expose” over a decade ago have infiltrated leftist spaces, recorded usually fairly normal and reasonable statements, and edited them to sound violent or otherwise unhinged.
- Just falsify a leftist. Creating fake accounts is easy. Instagram influencers do it, governments do it, and so do political propagandists and their billionaire funders. It’s incredibly easy to have a “leftist” Twitter account post something inflammatory, unhinged, or violent and point to it. YouTube personalities like Tim Pool specialize in going through leftist social media that may or may not be completely fake. The outrage certainly is.
The end destination is the same- put liberals on the spot and say “do you agree with what these people are saying?” The result is a trap- as presented, liberals aren’t going to agree with them (at the very least because it’s leftist ideology that has different core principles, but more likely because it’s intentionally presented as poorly thought-out or advocating for violence). The right-wing provocateur and the liberal are thus joined together promoting free speech, and a divide is created between the liberal and the leftist that would not exist, or be as deep and complete, without right-wing interference. As stated in Part I, liberal-left disagreements within Unitarian Universalist communities are historical and will always exist, but they can be manufactured too. Free speech is the best example of an issue that is almost wholly a domain of the right- liberal groups that triumph or defend free speech are frequently doing it in support of right-wing groups, or using right-wing language and terminology. This in some ways resembles fishhook theory, which is a counter to horseshoe theory. Here’s an explainer of the difference in the Pacific Standard:
The main argument for Horseshoe Theory is that both the far left and the far right are opposed to the centrist, neoliberal/capitalist status quo. Communists and fascists in the 1930s criticized the aging imperial democracies of Britain, France, and the United States as weak, corrupt, and—post-Great Depression—as hurtling toward a final collapse. More recently, the argument goes, left-wing radicals opposed centrist Hillary Clinton and France’s Emmanuel Macron. By doing so, they offered de facto (and sometimes more than de facto) aid to racist, nationalist opponents like Trump and Marine Le Pen. We are told that left and right both want to destroy democratic norms and the sensible center. Therefore, Horseshoe Theory says, they work together.
and Fishhook Theory:
Centrists enable fascism with such predictable frequency that the left has come up with an alternative to Horseshoe Theory: Fish Hook Theory. Fish Hook Theory suggests that the political spectrum is shaped like a fish hook, with the left out on one end and the far right bending around like a hook to wind up close to the center.
Free speech is an example where the alt-right and the center (which if we’re talking truly far-left and far-right ideologies here, liberalism is definitely in the center) converge and differentiate from the right. Liberals are not without principles, though they may also be “moderates” and end up trying to balance two very uneven sides in a way that slides to the right. But these principles can be hijacked. Free speech is an obvious one. Protection of private property is another one- if you hold a liberal, principled defense of private property, then you’ll align with the right when leftists damage security cameras, bank windows, or privatized immigration detention camps. The right has a lot of media salience and a lot of financial backing to make these cleavages happen- they can couch it in reasonable language like “don’t you want freedom of speech?” or “aren’t people entitled to what they’ve earned?”, but this may mean sliding to a right-wing conclusion of those starting points.
An obvious ending point for this series is a discussion of this summer’s major controversy, Rev. Eklof’s The Gadfly Papers. Like many people who witnessed the initial fallout of its publication, I don’t want to give the Reverend $7.99 to see whether it’s in fact racist and transphobic (though I believe UU groups when they publish responses calling it that, and those that aren’t friends with him that have written critiques of it). That may be for another day.