Recently, there was a particularly vile and malicious series of tweet-storms by professor and public “activist” Randa Jarrar. Jarrar, unbefitting of her professorship, laid into the late Barbara Bush, calling her a racist among other tasteless buzzwords . I for one, do not particularly like George H.W. Bush for various reasons , but Barbara always seemed like a kind and innocent person, despite the murderous family she married into. Jarrar then went on, with expletive-laden rants, to attack people viciously, as she obliterated any credibility as a professor she had left. She even went so far as to brag that, as a “Woman of Colour” with all the “right” political opinions, she is virtually untouchable. The problem is that she is probably right, and if it were just about swearing at people and being a petulant child on Twitter, it would have been a minor dust-up. Jarrar, however, went further by pulling a deranged stunt whereby she gave out the phone number of a mental health hotline in the guise of it being her personal number to all the online detractors that responded to her tweets. The hotline was then flooded with comments and abuses, I think she must have thought this was being coy and cutesy in a “riot grrrl”, “drop the microphone” tone of comeback you often find on display at any slam-poetry event.
I have been pondering the issue of free speech for quite some time, since it is the issue that (mostly) American Conservatives and “classical” liberals feel is the only one worth fighting tooth and nail over. It certainly is the issue that tends to unite huge swaths of the public, including so-called apolitical “normies”, therefore the wager is that this is the only winning issue the political Right has against the Left. However, this is flawed on several levels because the entire thought-process of free speech fundamentalism on the Right relies on faulty logic to begin with.
Enter the usual musings and bromides of the professional placators and Americanist neocons at The National Review Online. NRO defends the employment of Jarrar out of a sense of principle to freedom of speech , even on the heels of one of their darlings Kevin D. Williamson being fired from the Atlantic over Wrong-Think comments he made years prior . Let's examine Jarrar for a minute: she is an archetype for all that average American Conservatives hate with modern academia; she is a triumphalist and boorish propagandist, one who brags about her Brahmin status in academia, who writes about her experiences in lurid and grotesque details, including the regret she has over not choosing to abort her first child. By any metric, even the mildest of centrists and shameless neocons at National Review should hate this rogue far Left professor with every fibre of their being. Instead they hold on to what they believe is the “winning” strategy with the greater public.
The conservative logic proceeds as followed: every social issue, and every greater political issue of any importance has been ceded to the Left long ago. Now that American culture is in a freedom-based and spectacle-driven Gomorrah, no one really wants to hear about a society based on morals, virtues or principles, especially ones that will impede on their freedoms. Conservatives see free speech as the only issue they really have a monopoly over, since the Left has abandoned any pretense to this principle long ago. In some vain hope of winning over the largely apathetic public, all the Right must with one voice condemn academics and media figures who trample on free speech. All must come together to hold free speech up as the one enduring and uniting principle that should be fought for. This all seems noble and just, but deep down, the equation most in the official Conservativism™ club make's is evanescent, and at its worse, self-destructive.
They believe that the Left has a metaphysical gun to the heads of every conservative or right winger in American public life, due to their dominance of mainstream culture and various social institutions. If the freedom of speech culture in America were to go the way of many of European countries (and to a lesser extend, the way things are here in The North,) then the Left will have total freedom to pull the trigger, and cast out all right-leaning opinions as totally verboten. In this scenario, the Left will finally achieve their goal of putting the sad and miserable types at the NRO, and other republican Conservatism™ voice, out of their misery. All right-leaning students will be banished from the universities, the sky will open wide, all opinions outside of established mainstream doctrine, all conservative and even moderately center-right publications and media outlets, including youtubers and independent bloggers, will suddenly be swept away into oblivion. The conservatives believe that so long as the first amendment is kept firmly in the center of public life the Left will not be able to then achieve their utopia of total cultural and media dominance.
Let us examine this line of thinking: not only is it wrong since all of these chilling effects listed above, to some degree, are happening despite the wide support for freedom of speech in America. The reality is Conservatism™ is making a suicidal wager by persistently gambling for borrowed time only, and nothing more, as they have no long term cohesive plan to challenge the Left. The opportunism and self-promotion of Conservatism™, including their most visible public figures, will only serve to condemn the political and social status of classical liberals and Right-Wingers in the long run. Of course, freedom of speech is a fundamental principle, but the reality is that the modern Left does not care how hard conservatives virtue-signal over it. The Left knows that conservatives defending freedom of speech and expression at all costs, include aiding in the destruction of conservative ideals in the long run by refusing to protect them, is just a clever way of getting the Right to willingly limit its own capabilities.
My view is that academics should not be punished for their opinions, however disgusting they may be, but when one conducts themselves in such a manner, especially if that behaviour involves committing acts of dubious legality to attack people making valid critiques of one’s public opinions, there should at least be consequences. Jarrar violated the, albeit tattered, spirit of fair academic discourse, and would more than likely make her courses, and by extension life and standing in academia, very difficult for any student even slightly to the right of her. After all, no professor of even the slightest tint of Right-wing opinions would be treated by academia with such deference. Here conservatives had a golden opportunity to finally seek some influence of their own over the universities, to strand up for themselves, and make far left academics think twice about freely insulting and even black-balling students and fellow academics on the right. Here the NRO and other popular outlets of mainstream conservatism could have presented a united front in calling to punish someone who surely would not bat an eye at the subjugation of right-leaning professors and public speakers, in fact she would encourage such persecutions. Instead of gaining any will-to-power whatsoever, and being truly adamant that we are really in a “culture war” (as they have told us since the 80s) that requires the use of any tactic at hand, the high-brow letter men at NRO choose to hide behind the “winning strategy” of defending freedom of speech, even for those that would with delight see to their public demise.
NRO and virtually everyone in Conservatism™ continually chooses to not face the same degrees of alienation and censorship as those in the underground online-based Right do on a consistent basis. These beltway and big-city “official” conservative types simply refuse to live with the consequences of acting on their principles. After all, getting crazed far left professors fired might make waves among their left-liberal friends at the latest DC dinner parties. The simple fact is, the right in America, and abroad, is no longer in a culture war per say. Thanks to the complacency and ceding of cultural and academic power to the left (in favour of fleeting political and economic power) by Conservatism™ and the decision makers at the top of the mainstream right-wing, the broader right has been placed behind a cultural siege-wall. The wall of course is the first amendment, one that is still crumbling despite the wager conservatives have made, and a wall that is as porous as the so-called principles National Review Online claims to hold.
A Better Way Forward?
Conservatives, especially the so-called ones at the NRO, are engaged in an ideological battle that they do not have the slightest hope of winning. They simply do not have the right thinking or foresight to win. Just take a casual look at any left-leaning article on the Jarrar incident, or better yet, look at the comment sections of these articles. This New York Times Op-ed for example, lists off with scorn, all the times the right has gotten the wherewithal to demand action against a speaker or professor . Notice how most of these cases have to do with a professor trying to condemn and marginalize whole groups of people, even calling for outright violence against males, white people, conservatives, Etc.… Any rational person could look at these articles, including Jarrar’s screed against “white Belly-Dancers”, and conclude that academia would be tarnished by allowing such vitriol and direct threats against whole groups of people to go unchecked, or at least without a warning given to these radical firebrands. Pointing out the hypocrisy of the left is of course futile. There is a whole cottage industry on the right devoted to seeking it out, but this has been a terribly ineffective strategy, to say the least. The NYT comments of course bemoan conservative hypocrisy in this issue, and openly gloat about wishing to marginalize every single right-leaning voice in slightest; if they got their way. Yet NRO, as usual, refuses to see the persistence, craven cleverness, and wrath of their enemies.
Let us also look at the defence of Jarrar by the left-wing propagandists at Vox, who point out with glee the hypocritical call to fire Jarrar by some Conservatives . Vox casts Jarrar as a noble victim who merely committed the innocent act of pointing out the sordid past of Barbara Bush on the eve of her passing. Vox and the left-wing media knows exactly what they are doing by engaging conservatives with this line of condemnation. It is the very old game of “gotchya” politics that is so effective against mainstream conservatism because of their persistent one-dimensional championing of free speech at any cost. Vox is playing a game with Conservatism™, one that given the preconfigured parameters set by conservatives themselves, they can only win, and classical liberals/conservatives can only lose.
Instead of the eternal retreat and perpetual darkness conservatives find themselves in, perhaps the right in general should re-evaluate their position on freedom of speech as a principle in-toto: freedom of speech in a healthy, moral, and Godly society, one where people are more or less on the same page in terms of their ontological grounding, regardless of any political issues they may have, is a net-positive. The founders and enlightenment classical liberal philosophers, the ones American conservatives love to quote, even envisioned this. They had in mind the notion that a society held together by higher principles is one that can endure any excess brought about by the negative legal and moral principles of liberty (i.e the freedom from). Fast forward to the present day, and what do we have? We are given the same principles of negative freedom, especially the principle of free-speech, but only in a rootless, amoral or even immoral, apathetic and increasingly contradictory society that has abandoned any higher unifying principles long ago. In this society we see freedom of speech being weaponized as a tool of normalizing all maleficent, repugnant, soul-destroying, and even downright evil ideas and practises imaginable. This scenario we find ourselves in surely is not what any decent person, let alone so-called conservatives would want.
Abolishing freedom of speech may not be desirable, but the Right operating under a sword of Damocles, and adopting the Conservatism™ strategy of bargaining cultural and social ground to be “left alone” by our cathedral masters is a path towards destruction. There must be a different and more pragmatic way of navigating the issues of free speech with being serious about engaging in the “battle of ideas”. Conservatives might see this as a petty revenge-fantasy, but the reality is that these are the terms that the left set in motion, and now they must be made to see the consequences of a society which no longer values freedom of Speech in reality. Conservatives for years have warned the left about the dangers of eroding this principle, that it would result in their favored ideologues becoming unemployable, or at the least be made to suffer the same indignities of vilification, no-platforming, and threats of direction action that conservatives often face in the public square. Instead, conservatives fend off this “future” reality at every chance they get, unconsciously telling far left speakers and academics like Jarrar that they are free to undermine, deny employment to, no-platform, and in some cases even call for direct violence. Perhaps if conservatives recognize this situation and stop agonizing over the thought of calling for the dismissal of their ideological enemies from the media, academia, and even in high positions of corporate influence, they might have a chance at political, and cultural survival. In other words use their own tactics against them.
This issue goes far beyond the simple insane ramblings of a radical professor, it strikes at the heart of how free speech as a principle is being used to eat away at the very values and way of life conservatives claim to hold true. The biggest problematic attitude and disposition with Conservatism™ in America, especially highlighted by NRO, is that they try much to hard to appear “sensible” and “reasonable” to their opponents; of course, one must be prudent to seek effective political change, and a movement must not, as much as possible, look too radical or devious. I even posit that the Right should cultivate themselves in such a way as to ward off suspicions of being “fascistic”, by trying to find ways of marching through the institutions on a long-term basis instead of childishly calling for their destruction in some sort of far-fetched libertarian revenge fantasy. The right must even cull members who are genuinely toxic and that help to confirm all of the media’s suspicions about the right, as well as shedding nonsensical ideas of future utopias/dystopias, especially ones that are predicated upon one-dimensional notions of race and identity. There is taking these actions which are pragmatic, and will help win over people of course, but then there is the standard placating and sycophancy of Conservatism™, shilling to forces that work towards their destruction.
Grovelling to the left, and selling out one’s principles—like the David Frums, Bill Kristols, Kevin Williamsons and Jonah Goldbergs of the world do—has worked to undermine the right at every turn. The right in American simply can no longer make any arguments that require confronting people on the most existential of levels, let alone saying that academia and public institutions should have standards. This would contradict their baubles called “individualism” and “freedom”. Conservatives are no longer dealing with the genuine spiritual and moral freedoms the Founders envisioned, but the profane notions of pseudo-freedom cemented in modernity. American Conservatism™ has been on a losing streak for the better part of thirty years now, and will continue their fall into irrelevancy and political persecution for not seeing things as they truly are.