Making the World Safe for Fascism: Free Speech and the Worship of Civil Liberties

Americans are raised to hold some things sacred. God, motherhood, the flag, and free markets are among the icons our children genuflect before. As leftists we question or reject the sanctity of some or all of these institutions, in varying degrees according to our ideology and inclinations. And yet we have our own herd of sacred cattle at whose cloven feet we worship. Chief among these holy relics is the United States Constitution, most especially it’s first ten amendments, known as the Bill of Rights. In particular the first amendment, that includes the civil right to the exercise of free speech, is held sacrosanct.

In the coming paragraphs I will seek to dethrone this ideological demigod. My argument is not that the principle of free speech has no value, for it does. Nor will I take an unrealistic, anarchist-purist position that we should neglect the protection of these rights in the civil arena, in the court rooms or even the legislatures. Morality dictates that while the state exists, people need protection from the state by whatever means are possible and effective.

Instead, I offer this simple formulation: that the right to free speech is only one right among many, most of which are not enumerated in the Constitution. And that when we raise free speech above all other rights, human and civil, we sometimes, oftentimes, play into the hands of our political enemies.

Is being a fascist a “right”?

Nobody on the left likes fascists, or others who are openly racist. We compare George Bush to Hitler, insulting both. We deplore the racist heritage of the Ku Klux Klan, and the racist demagoguery of such latter-day groups as the National Alliance.

Our varied approaches to opposing these organizations may be summarized as follows: first, there are those who hope that if we ignore them they will just go away, sometimes voiced as “We should not give them free publicity”. This school of thought usually dismisses far right groups as “marginal extremists”, and unworthy of our attentions anyway.

And second, are those who think we should openly confront the fascists and other racists. (While both of these categories contain tendencies with varying degrees of pacifism and militancy, this somewhat strained dichotomy should serve for our purposes.)

It is to the first category of leftists that I direct my comments, to those who decline to challenge fascists on the grounds that they are irrelevant anyway, that opposition only gives them an inflated sense of importance, and besides, “They have a right to express their views, however much I may disagree with them.” I believe that this position typifies much of the left, and that this view is mistaken, even dangerous.

Do fascists matter?

First, let us quickly consider whether openly opposing far-right groups is worthy of our time. While fascist/racist groups may in fact have small membership roles, this fails to measure their political impact. For one thing, extremist groups create space in which moderates can move. For example, when the National Alliance calls for the forcible expulsion of all immigrants, it makes it safer for George Bush to propose a racist “guest worker” program. When taken to task for his racism, he can respond, “I’m no racist, those guys are the racists. I have a centrist position.” (In a similar fashion, and whether we intend it or not, anarchists and communists exert a leftward tug on liberal politics.)

Also, under certain conditions the ideas of extremist groups can have an impact far beyond the effect they have on the politics of the mainstream. Consider that in 1840 the American abolitionist groups of the north and the south, as well as the “separatists” (southerners who favored secession from the union) were dismissed as irrelevant radicals. Twenty years later, under the influence of a peculiar convergence of factors, the entire nation split along the political lines of these formerly marginal, extremist schools of thought.

Those who dismiss fascist/racist organizations betray a lack of understanding of the nature of ideological struggle, not to mention a certain Pollyannaish pacifism.

Is being safe from hate mongers a right?

Having shown that directly opposing fascists is a noble and relevant calling, we are now prepared to respond to claims that this somehow “infringes on their right to free speech”. This mode of thought manifests itself in ways that often border on the absurd. Every time a comment is removed from an Indy Media web site, a huge discussion about free speech ensues (as if the First Amendment requires citizens to provide a forum for the ideas of those they disagree with! Controlling the content of one’s own web site or newspaper is not censorship. But that this argument is so often raised, shows the extent to which the sanctity of free speech is embedded in our consciousnesses.)

Less incredibly but still mistakenly, many argue that staging counter-demonstrations to fascist/racist gatherings in an attempt to intimidate and silence them, infringes on their right to free speech.

Before directly addressing this argument, we should pause to consider exactly what, then, is this “right” called free speech?

Free speech, as detailed in the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, is a civil right. That is, it is a right that accrues by virtue of citizenship, according to one’s relation to the state. This Amendment guarantees a citizen protection from the government infringing on his speech. “Congress shall make no law… abridging the freedom of speech…” There is no guarantee that if you practice your legal right to speak, your neighbor won’t get pissed off, come over and black your eye! There is an entirely different set of laws that addresses such an occurrence, but that has no bearing on free speech. In a similar fashion, counterdemonstrations to fascist/racist rallies must contend with permits and such, and if violence erupts there are criminal penalties to consider… but all this has less than nothing to do with free speech rights. The government is (supposedly) legally restricted from abridging free speech. A conscientious human being, on the other hand, has a moral obligation to oppose hate speech!

Community pressure is a legitimate social force. Organizations of all descriptions, when considering where to locate, take into account not just legal zoning restrictions, but the likelihood of a friendly reception by the surrounding community. If we allow fascists and other similar cretin to believe that they are safe parading through our communities, we have failed in our responsibilities as members of that community, and we will pay a price accordingly.

Unlearning our privileged ignorance

One troublesome aspect of the free speech defense of the fascists, is the continuing reverence for the Constitution that it belies. The Constitution is above all a property rights document. It is not worthy of our respect, much less our reverence. The majority of our fabled “Founding Fathers” (always capitalized, like “God” in the Bible) were slave owners, which is doubly ironic in the context of the present topic, opposing racists! The Fathers were neither saints nor prophets, and the Constitution is not holy writ.

But the most disturbing element of the whole free speech debacle on the American left, is the measure of ignorance that it betrays regarding social privilege. If my great calling in life is the protection of speech, if I find threats to this right to be the most heinous crime imaginable, what does that say about my life circumstances? More importantly, what does it say about my ignorance of the life circumstances of a huge swath of American society (to say nothing of the world at large)?

If I value speech above all else, than I must never have been cold, or hungry, or been forced to drink bad water. If the worst thing I can imagine a police officer doing, is preventing me from venting my spleen, I must not have even the slightest hint of what it must be like to be a young black person living in a housing project, poor and without prospects, and guiltily of stealing and selling drugs until proven innocent. Or to be a Latino factory worker desperately dodging the immigration officers while struggling to earn a few dollars to send back home to his family. Or to be a little black girl, cowering behind a fire hydrant when the Klan marches by…

It is this incredible gap in experience that lies at the root of the left’s foolish notions about fascism and free speech. Only someone speaking from the perspective of comfort and blissful ignorance, would begin to suppose that the right of some bigot to spread his hateful ideas, is more important than the right of a young child of color to feel safe in the bosom of our shared community. The civil rights of fascists, the aggressors, matter far less than the human rights of our darker-skinned brothers and sisters, their victims.

prole cat, NEFAC supporter, personal capacity