Free speech and racism

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Thu Apr 5 15:59:03 MDT 2001

[This is from the Portside mailing list. Kathe Pollitt, a Nation Magazine
liberal, took the position that Brown students were violating David
Horowitz's "free speech" when they collected and destroyed the free
newspapers that included his racist diatribe against the demand for
reparations. In answering Pollitt and Jim Cullen, Mark Solomon makes
excellent points as usual. Mark is a member of the Committees of
Correspondence, a split from the CPUSA and a highly respected
African-American history scholar.]

A Reply to Critics

It's hard not to sympathize with those who have had enough of Horowitz
rants. So it's with reluctance that I reply to Katha Pollitt and
"jmccull171." They had no comment on the main thrust of my remarks: that
Horowitz's ads were racist incitement clothed in "anti racial preferences"
raiment, that his 1st amendment rights were never violated, and that
progressives should fight harder against a new wave of racism, expending
the same energy to demand that their views be heard in the mass media as
they do in defending Horowitz's "rights." That silence, I hope, connotes no
basic disagreement on those points.

Both respondents jumped on one paragraph at the end which said "let us
imagine" a future constitutional amendment to bar racism and genocide while
affirming equality for all. Golly. That was Lennonist, not Leninist. I hope
I'm not so loopy about present reality to imply that a progressive agenda
today should include a constitutional ban on incitement when we are barely
holding the line against the shredding of affirmative action by the courts,
when prisons are bulging with African Americans and Latinos, when Pacifica,
that one sliver of anti-racist free speech on the airwaves is being
hammered into submission, and when the census now says that the country is
as segregated as ever. In today's circumstances, such hypothetical law
would probably be twisted into an attack on civil liberties. The point was
to push the conceptual envelope a bit; to get us to think about the
inseparable link between stamping out racism and advancing democracy. The
aim was to do that by visualizing a polity (every polity constrains various
expression through law or money; our present one certainly does) where the
people had the constitutional power, and sought ways to use it, to rid
society of bigotry and institutional racism instead of abetting it.
"Jmccull" adduces this as "arguing in favor of suppressing political
ideas." There was a time when people on the left would never elevate pain-
inflicting racist obscenity, even   when camouflaged in academic tones, to
the lofty realm of "political ideas." He finds my thoughts "shocking ...
Newspeak in its most naked form." One can only hope in this difficult time
that we are equally heated, shocked and energized to work against resurgent

Katha Pollitt points out that anti-Nazi laws in France and Germany haven't
stopped neo-Nazism. True enough, but those laws were weakly enforced by
conservative regimes -- especially in Federal Germany, where sadly, they
were not spawned by peoples' movements and are largely window dressing,
shrouding the widespread use of ex-Nazis in the name of fighting communism.
But should we shrug off such laws given Europe's bloody history? The
statutes themselves aren't the problem. If Germany pursued fascists and
anti-Turkish arsonists with the vigor of its pursuit of old reds, perhaps
the anti-Nazi laws would have more moral authority and effectiveness. But
that's another story. Pollitt conjectures about the complications of an
anti-racist amendment, raising issues that would be have to be seriously
grappled with in a hypothetical future. I'll wager that any future
progressive society would know how to recognize racism, would fight it with
logic and intelligence and would find ways to distinguish between lingering
hidebound prejudices and organized, institutionalized acts of oppression.
It would try to apply the law with common sense, and would engage personal
insult with reason, argument and example in seeking to eliminate another
epoch's inhumanity.

But that's still all conjecture. What's troubling about the debate in
general right now is the muted or absent understanding of how devastating
racism has   been, and continues to be, in feeding reaction and in
eviscerating the unity and effectiveness of progressive causes. Now we hear
a lot of obfuscation about what defines a racist act. We sense retreat in
the face of the right- wing smear of "political correctness" and the big
lie of leftist repression and "racial McCarthyism." Many of us no longer
have much sensitivity for, and solidarity with those who are the objects of
racist incitement and by our reticence suggest that we are buying in to the
myth that the battle has been won. Generations of leftists and progressives
from the Old Left of the thirties to the New Left of the sixties had a
basic understanding how essential uncompromising struggle against racism
was to social progress. At times they may not have fought wisely or well
but they fought. Our response to the Horowitz controversy should properly
involve how best to resist but resist we must.


PS:      A correction of a correction. The affirmative action program of
the   University of Michigan Law School has been halted by a federal judge,
not the University's program which remains in force for the present.

Louis Proyect
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