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Don't let them turn Palestine into a free speech debate
The ultimate defense of Palestine advocacy is not that we should be tolerated - it's that we are right.
The extraordinary illiberal crackdown on advocacy for Palestine over the past months is teaching some important lessons about free speech in the US. Just last night, for example, we saw what happens when peaceful protesters engage in civil disobedience at Democratic Party headquarters: cops beat the shit out of them.
And while the right has been eager to draw an equivalence between these protesters and the January 6 insurrectionists, one difference in particular seems telling: Republicans defended the right-wing insurrectionists, while Democrats are attacking leftist protesters. Rep. Brad Sherman, for example, has become just the latest of a string of Democratic electeds to falsely accuse DSA members of crimes, alleging that “protests grew violent, pepper spraying officers and attempting to break into the building.” As Semafor’s David Weigel noted:
Rep. Sean Casten also relayed a more accurate account of the protest — but even there he flirted with prior restraint by warning that a similar protest in the future would be “dangerous,” amounting to “forcing police to guess intent”. Blocking building entrances is indeed illegal, but police can only exceed ordinary limits on the use of force during an arrest if they have a reasonable concern about imminent danger based on the specific circumstances of the incident. Prior to those potentially justifying circumstances even existing, “it would be a shame if the cops guess wrong and beat you up” can’t be construed as a reasonable warning; it’s just textbook intimidation, and a government official trying to intimidate citizens out of exercising their first amendment rights is plainly illegal.
There is, again, no symmetry here. There was no campaign of libel by elected Republicans against January 6 insurrectionist, no instances of prior restraint, and certainly nothing resembling the disproportionate response police dealt out against leftists.
And that crucial difference, among others, reminds us why the unique oppression faced by the US left can’t just be handwaved away as earned retaliation by the right for leftist “cancel culture,” retaliation that might not have happened otherwise. Neither of the political factions with any power in this country need the excuse of leftist cancel culture to get away with oppressing us or attacking Palestinians because both are completely united in opposing us. Last night’s violence would have happened no matter how pure the left’s commitment to free speech actually was. That’s the ideological truth in Joe Biden’s famous comment that “if there were not an Israel, we’d have to invent one”: if there were no reason to silence Israel’s critics, they’d have to invent one, too.
Grasping this does not just expose the lie of cancel culture pretexts for punishing Israel’s critics, however. It exposes the political function of this whole free speech debate: to shift our politics away from actual criticism of Zionism and towards a procedural debate about the right to criticize. Instead of affirming the basic humanity of Palestinians, the illegality of the occupation and ethnic cleansing of Palestine, and the moral depravity of Zionism, we find ourselves back at a debate over whether all speech should be allowed. Instead of advancing our position in the name of truth, peace, and justice, we advance it in the name of free speech, as an idea that must be tolerated even if it happens to be wrong.
This is the characteristic operation of liberalism: to channel conflicts between the powerful and the powerless into endless legalistic, parliamentary, and discursive debates about how the conflict will be fought. The conflict itself becomes secondary. I am reminded, when I watch debates over free speech, of a recurring argument with my brother growing up over the game settings when we were playing NBA Live. Will we play with the fouls on or off? Will we play with player fatigue on or off? Is it fair for me to use created characters with unrealistically inflated stats or do I have to stick with actual team rosters? We both knew that these decisions would favor one of us, and so the game settings became a proxy for the game itself; sometimes our arguments got so heated that we never even got around to playing.
Liberalism, by forestalling political conflict as possible, denies the powerless a chance to win. And debates over free speech are suited perfectly for this because they can be imposed over any political disagreement. In the background, there is always an implicit fantasy that this free speech struggle is just preliminary; once we resolve it, we can then move on to the substance of our disagreement. But there will of course never be any resolution to fights over free speech — and thus, no resolution to the debates they supposedly precede.
Palestine cannot wait for the powerful to give us permission to speak. And it certainly can’t wait for us to finish arguing with them about it. The courage and discipline of last night’s protesters and their unflinching focus on the task at hand shows us the way forward.
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