Politics & Media
Oct 10, 2016, 08:00AM

Free Speech as Identity Politics

Trump’s fans aren't fighting for the first amendment. 

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The audiotape of Donald Trump bragging about sexual assault has swamped most of the other news stories about Trump's despicable character. As one example, journalist Kurt Eichenwald's account of how a Trump supporter sent him a video designed to trigger his epilepsy has gotten little traction. The story is worth revisiting briefly, though, not because of what it says about Trump's character, but because it sheds light on one of the shibboleth's of the election—PC culture and free speech.

Many conservative or centrist commenters have argued that Trump is a reaction to liberal censorship, hegemony, and intolerance. Ross Douthat, for example, has said that left intolerance and "institutionalized political correctness" opened the door for Trump. Trump is unfiltered; he speaks the angry sentiments about immigration that the Puritan elites have deemed impolite. Trump, the argument goes, is a kind of culture warrior against oppressive do-gooders and their totalitarian regime of enforced multiculturalism. Speech has been repressed; Trump is freeing it—even unto the boasting about groping women.

But are Trump supporters really some sort of free speech champions? Eichenwald's experiences suggests otherwise. He’s written a number of articles critical of Trump, including pieces about possible conflicts of interests resulting from Trump's business ties to foreign countries. These articles unleashed a barrage of abuse and vitriol from Trump supporters—much of it anti-Semitic. Eichenwald's been called "kike" and "Jew," and he's received anti-Semitic cartoons. He's also been the target of threats; he says one Trump fan outed Eichenwald's children's schools. And, again, since Eichenwald has written publicly about his epilepsy, one Trump supporter sent him a video designed to trigger an attack. Epileptic seizures can be dangerous and even deadly; that video wasn't a prank, it was assault.

The stream of abuse Eichenwald has received is not unusual for this election season; as he says, many reporters who’ve written negative stories about Trump have been similarly targeted. And Eichenwald’s been the target of threats before when writing about controversial topics. But the intensity and viciousness of Trump's fans are still unusual—so much so that Eichenwald said that he actually discussed with his family whether he should continue to pursue Trump related stories. He eventually decided to go on. "But," he said, "why is this even a discussion? We do not live in a third-world nation where journalists who report unpleasant realities are in danger."

Eichenwald is obviously raising free speech concerns. But in most cases, stories about harassment online, or for that matter stories about Trump, are framed around racism, anti-Semitism, misogyny, and prejudice. In contrast, "free speech" is mentioned as a serious concern only when marginalized groups criticize people with a large platform—like, say, Tim Burton or Lionel Shriver. Questioning the creative choices of such people is presented as a slippery slope to totalitarianism. Self-declared Nazis sending death threats to journalists—white, Jewish, women, POC—somehow doesn't activate the same First Amendment concerns.

In terms of actual threats to free speech, the Trump swarms targeting Eichenwald seem like they'd be much more of an issue than people criticizing Burton. Burton has not gotten death threats, as far as I know. And as far as dangers to the republic go, "cast more black actors" seems a lot less ominous than "stop writing critical articles about a major party's presidential nominee." Criticizing someone's art, and asking them to do better, is different in kind than trying to give investigative journalists epileptic seizures to prevent them from doing their jobs.

But "free speech" at the moment has simply become a culture war trope. "Free speech," in current discourse, doesn't mean, "I care about first amendment rights." It just means, "I hate those stupid leftists." Which in turn indicates that Trump is not some sort of backlash to PC. Rather, reactionary assholes who love Trump know that part of being a reactionary asshole is shouting about free speech and the totalitarian evils of PC. It's just identity politics.

  • The writer here stumbles on a familiar problem. He knows he's supposed to pay lip-service to the idea of Free Speech, but he's not really on board, because Free Speech seems to permit free and easy discussion of such things as...the Jewish Question. I suggest Berlatsky do some self-examination and explore why there is such resistance to self-examination.

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  • I suggest you do some self-examination as to why you're an anti-Semitic piece of shit.//Look, free speech, right there. That should make you happy.

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  • This looks like an attempt to "turn the tables," but it's really just drawing a false equivalence. The people criticizing Lionel Shriver and Tim Burton are "respectable" members of society such as journalists, writers, and the organizers of a writers conference. The people sending videos and harassing Eichenwald are anonymous miscreants and perhaps criminals, as you suggest. This reminds me of the Bernie Bro tactic of taking the bad behavior of a few and blowing it way out of proportion to score political points. You'd be the first person to say not all Muslims are terrorists after a Muslim terror attack, yet that doesn't stop you from drawing exactly the same incorrect conclusion in this instance, when it involves people you don't support politically. What you call criticizing someone's art and asking them to "do better" (and this has ominous overtones) is actually an attempt at censorship. You don't see much outcry over the anonymous "Trump swarms" because it's obvious they have no credence whatsoever, and nobody defends them. They're just thugs who Eichenwald is tough enough to handle like he's done before. That's not the case with the PC/cultural appropriation crowd, who many such as yourself see as moral beacons with reasoned arguments worthy of respect. As they have they actual power to influence thought, they're much more dangerous than freaks trying to trigger an epileptic seizure. There are plenty of them on the far left too, and yes they do make death threats regularly, not that an anonymous online death threat has any meaning whatsoever.

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  • Is a H'wood film an expression of free speech or a product (a work of propaganda even)? Burton's native artistic expression may perfectly coincide with what the studios want so he may feel unfettered, but Burton makes the big bucks because produces something someone else thinks they can sell. If we look at commercial film making in general - rather than just Burton - it is clear expression is carefully curated; one might say censored. And in a much more profound way than whatever blue penciling power elite journalists and opinion havers supposedly have. In part I think the assault on PC-Gone-Mad serves to draw heat away from critiques of institutional realities.

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  • What?

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  • Beck, I didn't say all people making free speech arguments were doing so in bad faith. And I really avoid the term "bernie bros" because I think it's misleading (among other things, I voted for Sanders myself.)//I'm not sure why you find Peter's statement confusing. He's pointing out that Tim Burton makes comfortable art that is digestible by Hollywood executives. If he made more difficult or daring work—if he included more people of color for example—he wouldn't be as big a filmmaker. So does that mean he's a daring iconoclast, fighting for free expression? Or is he a bland compromiser, whose success shows that certain expression isn't allowed to reach the masses?

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  • Who cares if you don't personally use the term Bernie Bro? Are you really unable to comprehend my point that others do use it for misleading purposes? And I don't care who you voted for, as it has zero relevance to the matter at hand. If Burton just has to sprinkle a few more POC into his work to make him daring and important, why don't you email him with this trenchant observation? People actually creating art desperately need the hard-earned insights of people who sit on the sidelines and carp.

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