Even as I write this, I can feel the Overton Window shifting. Let the record show that when a death squad descended on Pamela Geller’s event in Texas with the aim of killing Geller for speaking freely, the “mainstream” response was to provide the death squad with golden parachutes of sophistry and moral equivalence. It was the finest of East Coast intellectual output.
I’ve lost count of how many sophistic articles have been published so far, but surely one of the most egregious came from Noah Feldman, JD, PhD, at Bloomberg View. In opening paragraphs so glib they seem to have oozed out of some used car salesman’s Brylcreemed pompadour, Feldman writes:
It’s easy to be distracted by the condemnation of the crime, which should be absolute. No verbal provocation can justify killing.
But it’s also easy to be distracted by the First Amendment.
Why do people write this kind of thing? What compels someone to consider a case of attempted terrorist murder, arising from the “provocation” of cartoons, and then devote all his forensic acumen to saying, essentially, “Hey! Look over there!”
I wrote last week that the enemies of free speech are slowly nudging their target into the identity-politics framework. In this worldview, there are Oppressors and the Oppressed, and the roles are irreversible. It’s all narrative: the interlocking assumptions that determine how people interpret real-world events. The identity-politics framework sees American society (all of Western civilization, in fact) as a structure, a machine expertly tuned to produce benefits only for the Oppressor. Some people always win; some always lose. Thus Geller is the real aggressor, even when she’s being shot at. The death squad was merely reacting to overwhelming forces within the structure.
Others channel their narrative in a softer, mealy mouthed way, usually with the well practiced preamble “I believe in X, but…,” X being some bedrock value of our country. This latter group is less explicit about their assumptions, probably because they don’t know they have them. You’ll find these people at the more “mainstream” media outlets.
Whether they’re “hards” or “softs”—we could use the old Thatcherite terminology of “wets” and “dries” if you want—the people who argue this way have particular beliefs about power in our country. This is why charging them with hypocrisy never works. After incidents like the Geller event, many conservatives go straight to work documenting the double standard. We’re not allowed to draw Mohammed, the alleged prophet of Islam, but others are allowed to depict Jesus submerged in urine. These articles are necessary, but you’ll have noticed they don’t move the apologist crowd even one inch.
There’s a reason for this. In the identity-politics framework, double standards are necessary and justified. They are a way of balancing the unequal power distribution in the United States. (Trust me that I hate writing sentences with phrases like that.) Just as affirmative action is supposed to correct structural injustice in the economy, gagging people is necessary to stop the “oppression” of designated victim groups. Think of the new obsession with “trigger warnings” and “safe places” on university campuses. This crowd sees free speech as one more tool of power in the Oppressor’s handy box.
Oh? We’re criticizing Ms. Gellar, a woman who was just the subject of a jihadi assassination attempt and who may well be a marked woman for the rest of her life, on niggling matters of tone and style?
And we need to do this now? We need to trot out the smug and absolutely unexamined, absolutely thoughtless vanities of Upper Middle Class Respectability and attack Ms. Gellar for not doing it in quite the way we would have, even as, in all likelihood, she scrambles to find long-term security to protect her life?
For drawing a cartoon?
This has been stewing in me since yesterday. It’s not just that the left is questioning Ms. Gellar in this; that much I expected.
It’s that so much of the right is rushing to join them, and thereby Signal that they have Value per the norms established by the leftist politico-media consensus.
I can’t quote the whole thing, so I’ll settle for this other bit:
This is about class. This is all about class.
This is about, specifically, the careerist, cowardly, go-along-to-get-along mores of the Upper Middle Class, the class of people whose parents were all college educated, and of course are college educated themselves; the class that dominates our thought-transmitting institutions (because non-college educated people are more of less shut out of this industry).
It is a class which is deathly afraid of social stigma, and lives in class-based fear being grouped with the wrong people, and which is more interested in Career, quite frankly, than in the actual tradecraft of that Career, which is clarity of thought and clarity of expression.
Thus, our institutions of thought propagation are dominated by the very people who can be easily cowed by the Social Justice Warriors, and who will, therefore, adjust their speech in order to not run afoul of the thoughtless — and frequently lunatic — thugs of the censorious left.
I nodded vigorously while reading this, before realizing that I, too, had lobbed a criticism of Geller during my first commentary on the terrorist attack. A proponent of the unfashionable Voltairean approach to free speech, I value defending someone with whom I disagree. But it is easy to turn disagreement into a kind of value signalling. I think Ace has captured perfectly the reason for our country’s putrefaction in so many intellectual fields, including almost all of academia (excepting the hardest of the hard sciences) and most of the media. There is—I am quite serious about this—a genuine terror running through these fields: the constant fear of annoying the gatekeepers of outrage in this country. As political views become more closely linked to employability, the fear has only grown more potent.
It is why we have become a dictatorship of double standards.