The fiery, cacophonous clown car of a Trump presidency cleared its first-month checkpoint this week, dominating news cycles, asserting broad executive power and blanketing America’s most vulnerable people in a fog of confusion, disruption, and fear.
But listen closely and you can hear another sound, an odd yet persistent rumbling, of a bemused electorate grappling with the pulpy, fibrous concept of free speech.
I’m being glib — how do you find humor in this nightmare administration? — but the newly invigorated conversations about free speech, hate speech, and effective protest in the Trump era may be worth more than the academic cribbage match that many liberals make it out to be.
Let’s get this out of the way first. No question, free speech is worth defending. Seriously, no argument here! But as the country — and this past week, Portland — is discovering, the boundaries and definitions that frame that principle have shifted.
Stakes, right now, are high. As L.A. Kauffman, journalist and author of the new book Direct Action: Protest and the Reinvention of American Radicalism, recently put it in an interview on The Nostalgia Trap podcast, “the institutions of the democratic republic are about to be dismantled.”
It’s hard not to see where she’s coming from. The Trump administration routinely issues lies and fabrications in one breath while broadly delegitimizing the institutions of a free press in another, calling journalists “the enemy of the people” and decrying every outlet critical of him as “FAKE NEWS.” His cabinet appointments seemed designed to corrode and decay the very standards and missions of the departments they head. And literal Nazis and white nationalist thinkers like Richard Spencer and Milo Yiannopolous have been given incredible platforms to advance their ideas.
Today’s world is a great deal more complex than any definition that John Milton, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Angela Davis, Pete Seeger, Chuck D, or any other of the thinkers that have helped frame the notion of free speech explain.
Milo Yiannopoulos, who describes himself as the "most fabulous supervillain on the Internet." Critics say he normalizes hate.
WHAT IS IT?
A standard, classically liberal view is that viewpoints, concepts, and philosophies should be able to compete with one another in the “marketplace of ideas.” Indeed, that phrase first cropped up in a Supreme Court decision written by Justice William O. Douglas in 1953, which ruled that “like the publishers of newspapers, magazines, or books, this publisher bids for the minds of men in the market place of ideas.”
But after decades of neoliberalism, privatization, redlining, voter disenfranchisement, and a populist Donald Trump administration, the distinction between the ideologies of a federal government and the free market is thinner than ever. Furthermore, if your local KKK is gaining power and confidence, then there’s a chance the marketplace of ideas isn’t working.
Today, a person’s opinion about free speech is directly linked to whether they believe Trump’s rise to power is fundamentally changing the laws and institutions of the country, and whether people believe it’s possible — or even worthwhile — to stop it.
To paraphrase a professor who wishes to remain anonymous, “If you take free speech to be an end in and of itself (that is, if you are a free speech absolutist), you accept that free speech cannot change anything, which would simply render it a means. In this case, there is no good reason to defend free speech on political grounds, as it cannot be deployed toward any political end but its own affirmation.”
It’s a complex issue. And Portland recently experienced this complexity firsthand.
Last week, Portland was paid a visit by Mr. Larry Lockman.
Larry Lockman (left) and Benjamin Bussiere (right) listen to the crowd during a heated Q and A session. Bussiere, the moderator and USM student that invited Lockman to campus, had the tendency to let supporters of Lockman speak longer at the mic than his opponents. At one point, Bussiere barked at a dissenter to sit down.
If you hadn’t heard of this dude before last month, you might consider yourself lucky. Rep. Lawrence Lockman (R-Amherst) has been practicing his style of anti-immigrant, homophobic, anti-union, anti-worker, anti-abortion politics in Maine for a while now — since the 1980s. His most infamous quote, as director of the Pro-Life Education Association, asked: “If a woman has (the right to an abortion), why shouldn’t a man be free to use his superior strength to force himself upon a woman? At least the rapist’s pursuit of sexual freedom doesn’t (in most cases) result in anyone’s death.” That was exposed in the Bangor Daily News in 2014, after which Lockman mustered an apology. (He’s got a gaggle of reprehensible quotes — feel free to Google.)
But he hasn’t changed. On Thursday, February 16, Lockman appeared at USM to deliver a lecture he titled “Alien Invasion: Fixing the Immigration Crisis,” and to discuss his proposed anti-immigration bill, LD 366.
Lockman’s talk was produced by the USM chapter of Young Americans for Freedom, a conservative youth activism organization that was launched nationally by William F. Buckley in the 1960s. Hours before the event, USM student and YAF chair Benjamin Bussiere explained to me his rationale for bringing Lockman to campus, anchored by a belief that the university has too long been a place for “liberal indoctrination,” and that the group’s decision to book the Congressman was an attempt to even the scope of ideas on campus.
There are eight Young Americans for Freedom at USM. None of the three I spoke with — all white males — offered any direct support of Lockman’s political views, focusing instead on the defense of his right to free speech and the value of a “diversity of opinions.”
“You get into (defining) free speech and hate speech and who is the arbiter?” wondered Brian Casey, a 19-year-old USM student and YAF member from Buckfield. “Who gets to define? The government?”
Crying foul about the disproportionate “liberalism” of college campuses is, by now, standard conservative doctrine. (It’s a little like affirmative action, but for white people who already have power, privilege, and opportunity.) And in a present-day conservative climate steered by Trumpism, free speech is the horse these ideas are riding in on.
Susan Hamilton, a former professor at USM, at the Lockman protest with a sign stating that the college "promotes white supremacy."
If viewed through the lens of free-speech absolutism — that is, the idea that all perspectives have the same moral weight — then right-wing, white nationalist ideas like Lockman’s appear to be victimized when opponents attempt to show that they’re exclusionary, oppressive, racist, or simply welcome. A similar outcry occurred when Richard Spencer, director of the white supremacist National Policy Institute, was punched in the face by a masked protester at Trump’s inauguration.
But it ignores the fact that such political ideas are already being employed, and are presently empowered by an increasingly authoritarian presidency.
“I know it’s fun to do the mental gymnastics of deciding whether or not Plato or Socrates … or whoever else in your Philosophy 101 text would agree with your logical conclusion that punching Nazis is bad because violence is not the answer, but no one cares!” says the political comedian Akilah Hughes in a web video. “You are under no obligation to hear a Nazi out.”
“One of the biggest problems with mainstream liberalism is its fetish for abstract principle over material reality,” writes journalist Katherine Cross in Alternet. “It is prone to forgetting that in a democracy, principles exist as a means to an end: the guarantee of maximal rights and liberties for the greatest number of people. A right is a tangible thing for the person who needs it most: a freedom from imprisonment by the state, food on the table, a roof over one’s head, a life free from deprivation.”
To argue that Lockman’s views are treated unfairly in the “marketplace” of the university presumes that upholding these abstractions is the first principle of building a just society.
Conservatives love this argument. It makes them look like victims in the court of public opinion.
Those who care about material issues would argue that those unjustly affected by Islamophobia; the mass deportation of immigrants; anti-abortion and anti-health care agendas; a market philosophy that ensures people of color don’t have access to the same resources, wealth or opportunities; or those whose civil rights are otherwise impeded.
THE AESTHETICS OF SHIT
Given the current political climate, booking a speaker like Lockman, or Milo Yiannopoulos, is the real-life equivalent of “shitposting,” the act of making inflammatory remarks online for little reason but to see how much it will offend, or simply because you can. For a lot of people — particularly young white males on message boards like 4chan — this is the most potent definition of free speech around.
“Shitposters, who are bound by nothing, set a rhetorical trap for their enemies, who tend to be bound by having an actual point,” writes Tara Isabella Burton in a brilliant post-election essay titled “Apocalypse Whatever” for Real Life magazine. “Attempts to analyze what shitposters are doing, or what their posts really mean, does nothing to defuse them; instead it reinforces their project by amplifying their signal.”
The aesthetics of shitposting is a perfect practical example of free speech as an end, where all perspectives are thought to have the same moral value. It’s also peak-Trumpism.
And those in the Young Americans for Freedom camp would seem to agree. “Everything is free speech,” Casey continued. ”Sunlight is the best disinfectant.”
Outside Lockman's event, at the Glickman Library, the message of the Portland Racial Justice Congress was clear.
Eventually, Lockman spoke. He opened by quoting a white nationalist passage by noted white supremacist Pat Buchanan. He talked about his bill, LD 366, which if passed would force Maine to comply with federal immigration policy at the risk of losing funding, and, alarmingly, make it possible for citizens to sue lawmakers and refugee resettlement programs like Catholic Charities in the case of injury or harm committed by an immigrant (which, it’s not even clear here if he means exclusively physical injury, as the bill’s language could include nebulous charges like “financial injury”).
He spoke for half an hour before a crowd of around 120, maybe half of whom were supporters. Outside, a coalition or 200 or more led by the Portland Racial Justice Congress rallied in protest, convening outside the Abromson Center, in the adjacent Glickman Library, and making their presence felt in the Woodbury Campus Center. After Lockman left, roughly 150 protesters filled the Abromson lobby in galvanizing collective protest.
TO FIGHT OR TO IGNORE?
Central to the thorny question of how to handle someone whose opinion you disagree with is whether it’s better to ignore them in hopes they’ll go away.
Nearly everyone anticipating the Lockman event had, of course, been aware of Milo Yiannopoulos’s scheduled appearance at UC-Berkeley on February 1, which was canceled after a small faction of protesters incurred an estimated $100,000 worth of property damage.
As local progressives rallied against Lockman’s appearance in the week prior, USM officials were concerned about a similar outcome. USM President Glenn Cummings told the Phoenix that he notified protesters that “they would be removed from the event by police” if they attempted to shut it down, and that “similarly, if Rep. Lockman advocated violence or harassment, (that) he would be removed and the event shut down.”
“The key tactic of alternative or provocative figures is to leverage the size and platform of their “not-audience” (i.e. their haters in the mainstream) to attract attention and build an actual audience,” writes Ryan Holiday in a piece for The Observer last week.
In the mid-2000s, Holiday was the campaign manager behind Tucker Max, the men’s rights activist whose strategically controversial antifeminist messaging was designed to cause uproar as a sort of rogue marketing tool. While Holiday writes that he adamantly disagrees with Milo, he believes he is acting from the same playbook.
“Let’s say he can acquire massive amounts of negative publicity by pissing off people in the media,” continues Holiday. “Well now all of a sudden someone is absorbing the cost of this inefficient form of marketing for him.”
Holiday argues that the best tactic would be for people to ignore Milo. That by protesting him, progressives are “playing right into his hands” — a sentiment echoed by President Cummings in his statement that Lockman’s would not be canceled.
But it’s not an either/or. Protesting might very well “play into the hands” of the alt-right, or of politicians like Lockman, but ignoring them doesn’t work either — as countless examples throughout history have shown. Furthermore, “the ‘ignore it’ take is argued by people who are comfortable enough with the status quo,” tweeted Mother Jones journalist Shane Bauer tweeted about Yiannopoulos. “Lots of people don’t get to ignore it.”
Nobody is saying Lockman should be in jail, or that he should be silenced by the government. But “a right to free speech is not a right to a platform,” writes Katherine Cross. Meanwhile, the opposite is true: a government headed by Trump is actively silencing dissent.
Essentially, Lockman advances a hard right-wing vision for Maine. On a much larger scale, Yiannopoulos creates misleading and vacuously crude spectacles on television and college campuses. His baseless assertion on Real Time With Bill Maher last week that transgender people are “disproportionately involved” in sex crimes in bathrooms, left unchallenged by Maher, may seem like a controversial “opinion,” but it’s not. It’s coldly calculated ideology. (Note: Spokespeople from the ACLU, Human Rights Campaign, and Transgender Policy and Law Institute have confirmed there have been zero reported cases).
The right-wing has a new weapon, and it’s an ability to advance their agenda through a performance of reportage that has little to no bearing on the truth. That agenda — or the performance of that agenda — has gained a foothold in the marketplace of ideas. To Trump supporters, if something “feels true” — such as Somali immigrants in Lewiston taking jobs or Black Lives Matter protesters being prone to violence — then it might as well be true, and no amount of fact-checking can convince them otherwise.
Milo may seem like a self-serving, amoral performance act who’ll say anything for a paycheck. And indeed he might be exactly that. But we cannot forget that his project is very real. His boss is Steve Bannon, President Trump’s right-hand man. It was reported that Milo was going to use his February 1 appearance at Berkeley to name undocumented students, and train young conservatives to turn them into the police. He’s used platforms at other events, he’s doxxed and shamed trans students at the campuses he visits. (On Monday, a video surfaced of Milo, who is gay, appearing to defend sexual relationships between 13-year-old boys and adult men, and a backlash by conservatives has hacked at his platform.)
Another person using the same type of unfounded, unapologetically false rhetoric is Trump. There’s that Sweden nonsense. The demonstrably false reports of “unreported terrorist attacks” in the U.S. Throughout his campaign, Trump’s behavior is erratic and absurd, wheeling out punchlines and clownish, off-the-cuff quips, meanwhile refusing to accept or condemn endorsements by David Duke and the KKK. (There’s precedent for this behavior; let’s not forget that Trump’s ex-wife Ivana told Vanity Fair that Trump kept Hitler’s speeches by his bedside.)
He and his supporters can say anything they want, seemingly without accountability. And without a critical view of notion of “free speech,” the howling majority opposing him appear like they’re ganging up on him.
Meanwhile, ICE raids are real. Deportations are real. Armed border control agents are checking people’s phones and social media accounts for “un-American” sentiments. According to multiple reports, the Department of Homeland Security declared the number of immigrants arrested over the past week has risen to 680, and raids were reported in at 11 states.
This is the danger of normalization. While people debate the finer points of free speech, Trump’s policies could have devastating consequences for vulnerable people. It’s the danger of permitting people like Milo Yiannopoulos or, locally, Larry Lockman, surely emboldened by Trump’s administration and LePage’s state governance, to advance hateful rhetoric and policy on elevated platforms. Yes, Lockman has a “right” to his views. But failure to mount an organized opposition to it — a vital form of free speech — would normalize his position.
Toward the end of the Q&A portion of Lockman’s “Alien Invasion” talk, a young woman of color named Najma Abdulahi approached the microphone. She commented that in her experience it was white men, not Muslims, that were the “most dangerous demographic.”
She asked the first of two questions — extending an invitation for Lockman to have a “dialogue with me and the people and youth in my community, which he demurred. Then this exchange happened.
“How do you deal with white fragility?” Abdulahi asked Lockman.
“What?” he replied.
“White fragility,” she repeated, slower.
“White what?” the Representative asked again, leaning into the microphone.
“White fragility. Like, how do you deal with it?”
“Next question,” he replied. “That’s not a serious question.”
Lockman’s supporters roared. Then one of them abruptly cut her mic.
Najma Abdulahi, a junior at Waynflete school in Portland, confronted Lockman with questions about white fragility. Her questions and offer to privately facilitate a dialogue between Lockman and her community were ignored.
The event had originally been scheduled to take place in one of the classrooms, but due to a bigger-than-expected registration list — surely many of them coming to oppose Lockman’s appearance — it was moved to the campus’s Hannaford Hall.
Lockman’s appearance was passed by the USM Student Senate, despite many members opposing the content of his message. “It’s an ethical thing,” said Fatumi Awale, a USM student and member of the student senate who voted to permit Lockman to speak.
“On the senate, we decided that everybody has freedom of speech,” said Awale, “and that we shouldn’t refuse somebody to say what they want to say even if it’s hateful.” Wearing a hijab, she sat among the crowd of Trump supporters at Lockman’s event, waiting for the Q&A session so that she could have her say.
“I’m here to tell him the truth,” said Awale, who told me she got her work shift covered in order to be at USM that night. “Migration is not a problem in this country.”
USM planned to charge the organization a security fee to pay for police presence, both YAF chair Benjamin Bussiere and USM president Glenn Commings confirmed, but backed off when the conservative group’s national lawyer, Caleb Dalton from the Alliance Defending Freedom, came after them.
“Speech isn’t free when students have to pay hundreds of dollars because others want to protest their viewpoints,” writes Dalton in a prepared statement on the issue. “The cornerstone of higher education is the ability to participate freely in the marketplace of ideas on campus ... Policies like this give protesters the ability to veto less popular viewpoints, turning the marketplace of ideas into the intellectual vacuum of intolerance.”
Cummings confirmed that they rescinded their request for the campus group to pay the security fees, saying the school “needs to update its rules.”