I recently reported that Dan Arel, atheist author and blogger, had justified the sucker-punching of white supremacist Richard Spencer in Washington, D.C., basically saying that it’s okay to punch racists (he called Spencer a “Nazi,” which he’s not). My position is that it’s never okay to use violence against those whose ideas we dislike—unless they use it against you first and you act in self defense.
Incredibly, Arel has expanded his list of Nazis and white supremacists to include “classical liberals,” who are said to include Dave Rubin—and me! In a bizarre post on his website called “How classical liberals helped normalize white nationalism and elect Donald Trump,” Arel takes the position that those of us who favor unrestricted freedom of speech (by that I mean speech that doesn’t incite immediate violence or constitute harassment in the workplace), as well as those of us who oppose the incursion of postmodernism into academic or intellectual discourse, are all not only white nationalists, but also helped elect Donald Trump.
Arel’s thrashings and flailings, in a piece that’s also poorly written, remind me of nothing other than the behavior of a fighting bull that has been goaded by a picador, looking around madly for someone to attack. What’s gored him is apparently the election of Donald Trump, and he apparently has to blame that on somebody. Never mind blaming it on the apathetic Democrats who didn’t come out to vote for Clinton, or on the working-class whites who didn’t respond to the Democratic message. Arel wants to pin it on “classical liberals”. It was we, says Arel, who allowed Milo Yiannopoulus to spew his message of hate! It was we who attacked gender-studies programs in colleges! It was we who tar the entire left as “regressive”, while aligning ourselves with the Right and “white nationalism” on all but a few issues. And that, he claims, has played directly into the hands of Trump supporters. Before I start masticating the meat of Arel’s argument (which is actually thin gruel), I want to make three points:
Arel’s claim that free speech leads to fascism is not only rank intellectual laziness, but betrays him as willfully ignorant of history. There are several well-studied and documented “causes” of fascism, none of which have anything to do with a society fostering the open exchange of ideas.
It would be convenient for Arel if everyone who was critical of censorship and thuggery was a Nazi-sympathizing fascist, as he claims. But his flailing and disingenuous hand-waving do not make it so.
Arel’s attempt to smear atheists and non-regressive Leftists as “white nationalists” and “Trump supporters” is a transparent attempt to make his readers ignore criticism of his own positions. By calling others names, he conveniently doesn’t have to defend his own positions.
Here, as far as I can make them out, are Arel’s claims. They’re all in support of his thesis that “left-wing” atheists are actually white nationalists who helped get Trump elected, stated below:
The so-called alt-right white nationalists have seemingly infected every fabric of American culture, no thanks in part to the media insistence on normalizing such a movement. Unfortunately, the atheist community, one that readily prides itself on rational thought, has not been immune to such infection, and many of the loudest voices have fought to not only normalize but also help amplify the voices of white nationalism.
Defending people’s rights to speak, including Yiannopolous’s, is not defending free speech, because people like him have no right to a platform. My position has consistently been that anyone invited to a University or other venue properly should be allowed to speak without interruption or cancellation, though nobody has an absolute right to be invited. Nevertheless, given the prevalence of right-wing, pro-Israel, pro-Palestinian, and other diverse student groups on campus, it’s inevitable that speakers will be invited with whom some (or many) disagree. If you don’t want to hear them, don’t go. Or, have counter-talks, or demonstrate outside the talk, or write some pieces for the student newspaper. There are also question-and-answer sesssions if you want to have direct discourse.
As for Yiannopoulos, my dislike for most of his views has been on display here for a while, and I rebuked him for calling out a transgender student at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee. Despite that, Arel says this:
Professor-emeritus and author of Faith vs. Fact, Jerry Coyne of the University of Chicago attacked this petition and accused the left of suppressing Yiannopoulos’ free speech rights. Of course, Yiannopoulos has a right to his hate speech, but he does not have a right to a university stage, and the school has a responsibility to protect its students. Had the government shown up and arrested Yiannopoulos for such speech, Coyne would have a case. Instead, Coyne and others on his side are only giving rise to voices like Yiannopoulos’ and doing nothing to defend the people being harassed.
Coyne was satisfied with Yiannopoulos merely agreeing to not mock students again and not actually paying a price for his actions. Yet those students who feared the damage Yiannopoulos to other students was brushed off by Coyne as regressive and anti-free speech. This view is hypocritical.
I’m wondering what price Arel expects Yiannopoulos to pay for his actions. Milo’s churlish singling out of a transgender student surely cut down on the number of his invitations, for that looked bad to many people. Does Arel want Milo to be punched?
Further, Arel makes the serious mistake of saying that a violation of free speech occurs only when the government shuts somebody up. That’s not the case. Violations occur whenever somebody has a legal right to speak in a public place but then is not allowed to speak. On college campuses, that involves either blockading a venue or disrupting a speech so severely that the speaker can’t continue. And it doesn’t just happen to Yiannopoulos: Maryam Namazie experienced this same kind of suppression when she tried to speak about reforming Islam in Britain.
We free-speech advocates try to deny free speech to those whose views we don’t like.
Arel says this:
When Yiannopoulos recently signed a $250,000 book deal with Simon & Schuster, many on the left, including celebrities such as comedian Sarah Silverman and director Judd Apatow called for the publisher to abandon the book deal. In response to this, atheist Michael Shermer called the duo “Milo haters,” and asked when they would be holding a “book burning.” All calls for boycotts became “regressive” leftist extremism and Yiannopoulos’ racism, bigotry, and hate was again defended the loudest by classic liberalists.
The classicists defend “free speech” at every turn unless it’s speech they disagree with. Yiannopoulos, in their view, must be given this book deal, a university platform, and be left to spread his hate without consequence. However, the second you speak up, using your own free speech, you’re attacked and silenced as the enemy.
This new hypocritical brand of atheism is void [sic] of critical thinking. It is void [sic] of compassion. It is completely void [sic] of any sense of humanism. It holds nothing but unquestioned contempt for the left while marching goose-step with the right, turning a blind eye to the bigotry they claim to disavow.
Like that goose-step analogy? Think it’s accidental? Well, that aside, whoever said that Yiannopoulos has to be given book deals or university platforms? A company agreed to publish his book, and if you don’t like what he says or writes, don’t read it. But don’t ban it, either. As for university platforms, well, if some student group wants to invite Milo, and he accepts, then trying to ban him or shut him down is indeed a violation of free speech. I will defend anyone’s right to speak under those circumstances, whether or not I like what they say. When have I ever urged censorship of anyone? Throughout the article, Arel’s characterizations of my positions can charitably called lies.
And there’s this:
It would rather align itself with those Hillary Clinton referred to as “deplorables” simply because they share an equal hatred of Islam, and feminism, rather than align themselves with the left, which has been responsible for the decades of forward progress in the US.
Umm. . . I voted for Clinton and have always despised Trump. On the Rubin show, I said I considered myself a liberal and as someone on the Left, and had always voted Democratic. Arel goes on:
They [Rubin, I, and our minions, apparently] strawman the very idea of “safe spaces” claiming its leftist liberals begging to be coddled in school, refusing or caring not to listen that these are nothing but the same “spaces” we see in Alcoholics Anonymous, or even at private atheist meetings or gatherings.
Instead of listening to these reasonable demands, they attack and mock them. They welcome white nationalist speakers on campus and complain if students try and stop it, telling them to protest instead, and in turn, complain when they turn out in protest, accusing them of trying to live in a bubble and being an enemy of the free exchange of ideas.
I have listened to these demands, winnowed the reasonable ones from the unreasonable ones (not all are reasonable!) and explained why. I welcome all speakers on campus if they’ve been properly invited, and my complaints are not against protesting those speakers, but when those students try to “stop it,” i.e., shut down such speakers. Again, I’ve encouraged those who oppose speakers to picket, ask questions during the Q&A sessions, stage counterspeeches, and argue in the public forums. I have not argued that such protests should not occur (though I think they’re sometimes misguided), but only that their intent cannot be to prevent someone from speaking.
Apparently Arel is the one who’s in favor of censorship, approving of the punching of Spencer, apparently agreeing that publishers should abandon book deals if people protest their hate speech, and urging people to deny Yiannopoulos a platform to speak, even after he’s been invited. Remember, too, that Arel approved of Richard Spencer’s being sucker-punched, which is not only violence but also an attack on free speech. If you want to read two very nice pieces by free-speech lawyers about why we shouldn’t approve of such violence, or of shutting down “hate speech”, see these two articles.
“On punching Nazis,” by Ken White at the Popehat site. One excerpt:
“Applying social and legal norms about punching or prosecuting people based on speech shouldn’t be confused for treating all speech as equivalent. All speech isn’t equivalent. Nazis are scum. They don’t support the social or legal norms in question and in fact support killing people based on skin color, religion, or disagreement. Saying they are scum, and that their speech is qualitatively different than other speech, and that they ought to be shunned and reviled, is not the same as punching or prosecuting them. It is a good thing to identify Nazis as scum and treat them – socially and rhetorically — accordingly.”
“Defend Donald Trump’s right to free speech” by Marc Randazza on CNN. And one excerpt from that:
“It is a fair opinion to think Trump’s speech is offensive, problematic, or hateful. But, the First Amendment requires neither tact nor politeness. It requires that we permit all views to set up stalls in the marketplace of ideas, and we let that marketplace decide which ideas prevail. That is why it is called “the marketplace of ideas,” not “the marketplace of gangs beating each other up.”
Would Trump similarly stand up for the rights of others? I doubt it. But that is not the point.
If you don’t stand up for Trump’s liberty today, someone may come for yours tomorrow
If we believe in free speech, we need to believe in Trump’s as well.”
The regressive norms about speech adhered to by people like Arel will (and have been) used against those who encourage them. For instance, if the person who punched Spencer were black (he wasn’t), could he be prosecuted for a “hate crime” against whites? It’s not inconceivable.
Nobody, including Arel, should set themselves up as arbiters of what is “good” speech and what is “hate” speech that is okay to censor. No speech should be censored, for the free exchange of ideas is designed to lead to the victory for the best ideas. That this is true is demonstrated by the advance of moral thought is a free society (in the U.S., for instance, civil rights, women’s rights, gay rights, including marriage), and the lack of such advances in societies where discussion is prohibited or criminalized.
Decrying postmodern gibberish and extreme regressive leftism (e.g. excusing Muslim-based misogyny) is an offense to social justice and aligns the critics with white nationalism.
Arel thinks that my mockery of postmodernism, especially in gender studies, amounts to a critique of feminism itself. In fact, he contradicts himself below by saying that we atheist fascists do indeed support women’s rights, but yet we “mock gender-studies”. And look what I’ve put in bold!
These community appointed leaders argue for a further centrist, or a right-of-center libertarian model of government, one they cling to as “classic liberalism.” They break from the right only by supporting women’s rights, same-sex marriage, and a wall between the separation of church and state, yet the join the right in fighting against feminism, progressive social justice, and go as far as to mock gender-studies. Instead of embracing the political left and the strides it has made in those areas of social justice, Rubin, Coyne, and the like, lambaste the left as extremists, while aligning closely with white nationalism.
They give voice to the worst humanity has to offer and work to silence and shame those who stand up against such bigotry. This is because they accuse the entire left of being “regressive.”
There is no contradiction in promoting feminism and, at the same time, mocking the gibberish that comes out of not only gender-studies programs, but other areas of the humanities, including science studies. I am not aware of having written off gender-studies, science studies or other areas of the humanities as a whole; as readers will know, I claim that these areas are infected to greater or lesser degrees with postmodern cant and relativism, and call it out when I see it—as in the notorious “feminist glaciology” study, or academic work on the whiteness of pumpkins or the racism of Pilates. Such studies are palpable nonsense, and I haven’t particularly concentrated on work coming out of gender-studies programs. Nonsense is nonsense, and a lot of it comes from postmodernism in the humanities. Science itself, which does accept the notion of progress towards truth, isn’t so afflicted.
As for aligning ourselves with “white nationalism”, which I take to mean white supremacy, Arel is simply lying. I’ll speak just for myself when I ask anybody to name one instance when I’ve lambasted the entire left as extremist, or, especially, “aligned closely with white nationalism.”
What we see here is the most classic regressive-Left technique: when you don’t want to deal with someone’s arguments, tar them with the worst epithets you can think of: racist, misogynist, and so on. That puts them beyond the pale, demonizing them to such an extent that one no longer needs to pay attention to what they say. Even on this site a reader will occasionally say that they have written off somebody’s entire oeuvre because of one thing they’ve said. That’s not wise, for everyone sometimes says foolish or invidious things.
Such tactics have led to the accusation that in fact it is people like Arel, not me, who, through their policing of language and thought, have pushed a lot of disaffected and discouraged people into the Trump camp. As I’ve said, I’m not so sure about that claim, but I bet that accusation has stung people like Arel, leading to his and others’ attempt to throw the blame for Trump on the progressive Left.
I’ve already run on too long, for in truth I don’t think Arel’s slander deserves a response this thorough (and, truth be told, his commenters have kicked his tuchas so hard that he won’t be sitting down for a month), but I want to say one more thing about Dave Rubin. Arel indicts him, as have others, for failing to call out the right-wing views of some of his guests. Arel:
Host of the online talk-show The Rubin Report, Dave Rubin, an outspoken atheist, invites the likes of former Breitbart editor Ben Shapiro, or Breitbart’s controversial Milo Yiannopoulos to speak for hours without offering counter arguments or forcing them to defend their white nationalist and xenophobic ideologies. Instead, Rubin looks for points of agreement and forms bonds. The alt-right, in turn, enjoys Rubin’s large audience to spread their message of hate. Rubin has stated his choice of guests help him push his own agenda, so if one is confused as to why he brings on such voices, it’s because Rubin himself is pushing this same agenda.
Rubin claims to be a champion of the free exchange of ideas, but you’d be hard pressed to find a guest he disagrees with. He goes as far as to blame the left for the election of Donald Trump, accusing the politically correct culture of rallying the right around Trump’s message.
What Rubin ignores is the fact that he gave a megaphone to many of Trump’s loudest supporters, giving rise and credibility to their ideas, empowering the white nationalist movement and bringing them to new audiences. It’s not the left that helped elect Trump, it was racism, sexism, anti-Muslim bigotry, and those who helped raise those voices above the rest.
If you consider who Rubin’s had on, including Sam Harris, Gaad Sad, Milo, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Lawrence Krauss, Inna Shevchenko, Sarah Haider, and so on, you’d be hard pressed to see these as fitting into any consistent agenda, much less the “alt-right” one or any adherence to “the white nationalist movement” (some of these guests, after all, aren’t white!). Rubin’s model for a talk show is not Jerry Springer, but Larry King, where guests get to simply air their views. Now you may say that Rubin lets some pretty odious views pass uncriticized, but remember that, as he’s always emphasized, he’s drawing out people’s ideas in an attempt to have his audience find a place where both Left and Right can sit on common ground. It is the division between people, both culturally and politically, that has led to our extremely polarized society. If we’re to fix that, we either have to increase the polarization, and foment a revolution, or try to find compromise within our democracy. Rubin, I think, is engaged in the latter project.
Recommended reading: “The new totalitarians are here” by Tom Nichols on The Federalist (2015).