Free Speech And The Politics Of The Dog Whistle

Are preserving free speech and preserving hate speech synonymous?

There’s a curious convergence between alt-right and liberal accounts of the UC Berkeley “free speech” fiasco. Fox NewsSean Hannity describes this “campus fascism” in the passive voice, telling us Ann Coulter’s right to free speech was “being trampled upon.” Or take Focus on the Family’s Candi Cushman, who informs us that her speech “was cancelled” ― again, a statement without an acting subject. The presumed perpetrators are simultaneously “snowflakes” and terrorists ― both? ― yet it was supposedly the institution itself that shut down Coulter’s speech.

This slippage is evident in liberal accounts as well, from Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren to Robert Reich and Berkeley Chancellor Nicholas Dirks. On the one hand, it is the university as an institution that is being accused of censorship, now being sued by the Berkeley College Republicans; on the other, an intolerant left is to blame, accused of failing to engage Coulter’s ideas. “If you can’t ask Ann Coulter in a polite way questions which expose the weakness of her arguments, if all you can do is boo, or shut her down, or prevent her from coming,” Sanders told the Huffington Post, “what does that tell the world?”

Coulter is a master at facilitating this construction of the narrative. When after the big day she appeared on Tucker Carlson’s program on Fox News, he asked her what her controversial speech was going to be about. She replied that she had prepared a “searingly brilliant speech on immigration, the main point of which was that federal written law on the books about immigration passed over generations by both Republicans and Democrats should be enforced.” Yet this wasn’t the content of the speech at all. We don’t have to guess, as she provided Gavin McInnes, the mustachioed founder of the self-proclaimed “Western chauvinist” fraternity the Proud Boys, with a copy of the speech, and he read it to a group of 300 or so alt-right supporters in a park across from Berkeley’s City Hall.

Coulter’s prose likened immigrants to “rat feces,” a phrase that not even McInnes could utter without qualification. She justified Islamophobic attacks on Khzir Khan, the father of an American soldier killed in combat who spoke at last year’s Democratic National Convention. She openly advocated a Muslim ban, complaining that the United States admits more immigrants from Muslim countries than from Great Britain, as if population size and domestic conditions are irrelevant considerations, and only the race and religion of immigrants matters, or in her favored euphemism, their “culture.”

And for a speaker who regularly complains about student violence, likening protesters to “fascists,” McInnes’ Proud Boys are required as a condition of their membership in the organization to dress up as British skinheads and beat up anti-fascists at rallies.

Carlson informed his audience, “Coulter was forced to cancel a speech because the school would not provide a venue or a time,” but not even Coulter could let this statement fly without modification. “Well, they changed the rules every ten minutes,” she explained. “I kept agreeing to all of their conditions. They were hoping I would cancel.” And then she muttered the kicker: “Then my allies turned tail and ran at the last minute.”

Yes, you read that correctly. The very groups who invited Coulter to speak at Berkeley in the first place — the Berkeley College Republicans and the Young America Foundation — formally withdrew their support for her talk, though they are apparently going forward with their lawsuit against the university administration. But no one prohibited Coulter from speaking on campus. She was provided with a venue, just as any other speaker would be. So why didn’t she show up? Was she peeved that the YAF’s withdrawal meant that she wasn’t going to get her $20,000 speaking fee?

Or was the entire thing an attempt to troll liberals, brilliantly winning them over with her discourse about “free speech?”

It was clearly the latter, and there was no more hapless victim than Chancellor Nicholas Dirks. After the same token reference to the mythical 1960s that opens every Fox News and Breitbart column on the subject, he took the Sanders-Warren line, decrying violence and insisting instead that we engage in the “open inquiry” and debate that characterizes our “liberal democracy.”

Have these people never read a word of Coulter’s writing, or at the very least caught her on a cable news show? Her entire shtick is rejecting dialogue and debate. She talks over her adversaries; frames everything as a joke, complete with condescending chuckles; and then reframes whatever just happened as ludicrous and oppressive. Demagogues specialize in monologues.

The entire strategy of the alt-right is to minimize its open racism."

Besides, what would this dialogue even look like? When Richard Spencer spoke at Auburn this month and a black student asked him how he could so wantonly degrade “diversity” as a concept, he nonchalantly responded that the United States is a white country with a white culture. Is this a debate worth having? Would Dirks have Berkeley’s Muslim students argue back that they aren’t violent terrorists? Would he have Spanish-speaking immigrant students insist that they are not in, fact rat, feces?

The very fact of this debate would legitimize vile bigotry, and it has no place in an academic setting. The notion that Coulter was simply defending existing immigration policy is preposterous. But we don’t even have to have this debate. No one banned Coulter from speaking at Berkeley! “Free speech” doesn’t mean you get to speak in the venue of your choosing and get $20,000 in fees and unconditional support. No one would’ve stopped Coulter from speaking to her supporters in the park, to her adversaries gathered near campus, or to students on Sproul Plaza, home of her and Dirks’ mythologized Free Speech Movement.

The entire strategy of the alt-right is to minimize its open racism, reducing it to some run-of-the-mill theme, and then crying censorship when this racism is called into question. As soon as they do this, liberals flock into their arms, allowing the entire thing to be framed as a question of “free speech.”

Nicholas Kristof joined the chorus, complaining about “Berkeley’s reluctance to let her speak.” To reiterate: Coulter was not prohibited from speaking, yet as soon as the phrase “free speech” is invoked, liberals were up in arms, disregarding what actually happened. When conservative speakers come to campus, no one cares. There are rarely even protests. What students are protesting is a speaker who openly demeans them as subhuman.

Is this really the rational debate that Sanders, Warren, and Dirks hope to see in the public university? Should immigrants, women, queer and trans people, and people of color seriously have to enter a debate over their very humanity?