It’s not that I disagree with Scott Lemieux’s arguments. I do, but that alone means nothing. People can disagree. But his post at Lawyers, Guns and Money ends with three points that are, well, (how would I say this if I was David French?) stupid.
And even stupid is perfectly acceptable, as this is America and people are entitled to be stupid and still express themselves, even if they’ve usurped a great song title to which they have no right. But Lemieux is a lecturer at the University of Washington, and he teaches impressionable students about law-type stuff. And yet, he can’t seem to muster the ability to see that his three points are
fucking idiotic unsmart.
There is indeed an enormous amount of sloppy thinking and bad faith involved in these discussions. I’ll hopefully return to this issue at greater length, but we can use the Lewis and Clark controversy to make some critical distinctions:
Since Lemieux invoked sloppy thinking and bad faith, he gets it in return. Don’t blame me for being a big, ol’ meanie, even though I’m a big ol’ meanie, but the guy who punches first can’t complain about being punched back.*
Actually preventing people from speaking is a potential free speech issue. Sommers was ultimately allowed to speak, although she was cut short by the administration (which is within their authority.) Some students did try to stop her from speaking, a tactic I disagree with, although whether it’s worth 800 words in the nation’s most prominent opinion real estate is another question.
The characterization of what happened (Sommers was ultimately allowed to speak) is disingenuous. There’s video. She got in some, but not all, of what she was invited to talk about. Was it within the administration’s authority to cut her short, because, as the dean of diversity explained, the “few” students who sought to silence her by their protests were getting “antsy”? Why?
It’s not a “potential” free speech issue, but an issue. That Lemieux disagrees with the tactic is irrelevant to whether it was an impairment of free speech. But whether it was “worth 800 words,” or ten thousand, or none, isn’t up to Lemieux. It wasn’t his real estate and he doesn’t get to decide what is worthy of its use.
He wouldn’t publish it? Well, when he becomes the boss of the New York Times, he can make the call, Until then, who gives a shit what he feels is worthy of comment? I don’t think his post was worth any real estate, but I don’t criticize him for posting it. I criticize him for what he posted.
Arguments that a speaker is not worthy of a particular forum are exercises of free speech, not denials of free speech. People are allowed to have views about who represents the values of the community and who doesn’t. If Liberty University doesn’t want to invite pro-choice speakers to campus it’s not violating anybody’s free speech rights. Nobody is entitled to any particular forum. Students have a stake in the campus community and are free to express their views about which speakers have views that can make a constructive contribution and which don’t. (And virtually nobody really believes that free speech requires anybody to have access to any platform — google “Ward Churchill Hamilton College.”)
Sommers was invited by the Federalist Society to speak. Had she not been invited, she would have no right to a forum, but she was. Students who feel she’s a “fascist” don’t have to go hear her. They can criticize her invitation all they want. They can call her names, call their fellow students names for inviting her, all they want. Nobody suggests otherwise.
The decision by the Federalist Society to invite Sommers doesn’t require the approval of the National Lawyers Guild, any more than vice versa. Free speech doesn’t require the Federalist Society to invite Sommers; they chose to. They’re allowed. What part of this is so exceptionally difficult to grasp that Lemieux devolves into “no one has a right to have access to any platform”?
I’m not sure if this is unique to Weiss or a broader thing, but to state the obvious mischaracterizing someone’s views is not a “free speech” issue (and if it was, Weiss would be the new Comstock.) I’ve been teaching political science at the college level for two decades, and the thing is that even very intelligent students sometimes don’t use political labels with the greatest precision. This doesn’t strike me as an urgent national crisis, but at any rate it’s got nothing to do with “free speech.” Also, if you don’t wan’t to be mischaracterized as a “fascist” it would be helpful not to actively promote social movements that are saturated with fascists.
Did Weiss “mischaracterize” something?** What? That the NLG letter called Sommers a “known fascist”? It did. It’s a letter. It can be seen. With eyes. Or is it that Weiss didn’t characterize Sommers as a “known fascist,” which Lemieux believes her to be? Did Weiss commit the sin of not hating who Lemieux hates? And this is what an academic calls “mischaracteziation”?
Whether this strikes Lemieux as an “urgent national crisis,” like whether it’s worthy of New York Times op-ed real estate, is fascinating provided you find Lemieux’s feelings as fascinating as he does. But “at any rate,” rallying the woke brigade by calling someone a “known fascist,” under the belief that most “very intelligent students” will be too lazy or insipid to figure out that the characterization is nonsensical, to silence her does indeed involve free speech. Not intrinsically, perhaps, but in action, because what happened was that these “very intelligent students” chanted fortune cookie slogans to prevent Sommers from speaking actual thoughts.
That Scott Lemieux’s politics are woke enough to be “outraged” took a nosedive in the update.
It is absolutely necessary, for the sake of democratic ideals, that the staff attend my talk, and they must listen politely (and quietly) as I condescendingly dismiss their idiotic worldviews and personally insult them. They cannot yell at me or express indignation in any way. For them not to allow this to happen would be an alarming sign of the decline of liberalism in the West.
It’s not enough that I have the right to criticize Bari Weiss, James Bennet, and Bret Stephens here at the web publication I work for, or on Twitter, or really any other platform I have access to. The problem is that there is a platform I don’t have access to—the offices of the New York Times, specifically the opinion section—and, therefore, I have no way to personally and directly criticize the people I find objectionable. That is a clear-cut violation of the principle of open and lively democratic debate.
Sommers got invited to speak. Weiss is a New York Times columnist and editor. There is no rational connection between the argument that anyone is entitled to another’s platform, uninvited. All of which results in the question of how any institution of higher education would have someone so fundamentally incapable of logical thought and reasoning teach its students?
It may be bad enough that students are politically indoctrinated to believe that there is a “right” political view and a wrong one, but to add the inability to engage in rational thought to the mix is a deal-breaker. If you’re going to raise the issues of “sloppy thinking and bad faith,” then you really shouldn’t indulge yourself. And if you can’t help yourself, maybe teaching students isn’t the right job for you.
*The academic tradition is that the first to speak gets to spew whatever they want, but they huff and sniffle if reactions aren’t at best adoring or at worst “moderated.” In other words, they can throw shit but they can’t take shit being thrown back at them, which is considered too uncouth and intemperate for the dilettantes of the academy.
**Edit: It may be that Lemieux’s criticism isn’t that Weiss mischaracterized anything, but that she made a big deal about the student’s mischaracterizing Sommers as a “known Fascists,” for which they’re to be forgiven because they’re just “very intelligent” but dumb kids. If so (and it remains unclear that’s what he’s trying to argue), then again Lemieux elevates his sensibility of what’s worthy of criticism over Weiss’.
Is it a big deal that law students falsely call someone a “known fascist”? Not unless one expects them to soon become lawyers or anything, where their silly, childish (but not idiotic) mischaracterization would certainly be forgiven in court when someone’s life is in their hands.