After the recent confrontation with anti-choicers on Pitt’s campus, an ideological split as old as the University is surfacing yet again. This is the first in a series of compilations we will be printing that will include perspectives on disruptive tactics, the discourse of free speech, social immediacy, and what it means to put your beliefs into practice.
The following zine was written in the fall of 2009, partly in response to the administrative and liberal backlashes against the successes of YWC opponents, and partly as a broader critique of the “marketplace of ideas” concept. YWC, or Youth for Western Civilization, is a white supremacist student group. After a sustained and militant anti-racist campaign, the group was essentially driven off campus – despite the University’s best efforts to protect it for the sake of “free speech”.
On a most basic level, this piece asserts that the equality of actors intrinsic to the “marketplace of ideas” is a myth only made possible by the illusion of the University’s separation from the rest of society.
War by Other Means:
A trip through the marketplace of ideas on UNC campus
Today Western Imperialism is the imperialism of the relative, of the “It all depends on your point of view”; it’s the eye rolling or the wounded indignation at anyone who is stupid, primitive, or presumptuous enough to believe in something, to affirm anything at all. – The Coming Insurrection
In a rare moment of accidental wisdom, the U.S. Supreme Court declared in 1967, “The college classroom, with it surrounding environs, is peculiarly the marketplace of ideas.” Perhaps no better phrase can be found to characterize the social malaise, passive nihilism, and active relativism with which ideas are “debated” on campus at UNC. Here, ideas are not so much exchanged as general commodities, per se, but more specifically bought and sold like gas station candy bars, with all the import, value, and meaning those entail. “You like Baby Ruths more than Snickers? Ok, ok, that’s fine, but why get so worked up about it? It’s only a candy bar!”
Every aspect of this marketplace allusion, or should I say, illusion, is implied in the economic analogy: an isolation from the real physical world of violently conflicting social forces, a consequent lack of moral or ethical urgency, a pretense of equality in the mass media distribution of and financial investment in the ideas themselves , and an ahistorical understanding of the social position which the ideas in question have been assigned to.
Somewhere in this silly “environ,” the concept of free speech emerges, pathetically attempting to assert itself with some meaning in a world where no student really cares, and no student group is particularly willing to risk anything: to extend itself beyond the safety and comfort of the teach-in or the permitted demo in order to turn their idea into a reality. And this is where the marketplace of ideas becomes just like any other marketplace: a house of cards built on faith and rhetoric, waiting to be either dismantled or transformed into its more overtly fascist counterpart as soon as a truly active opposition emerges.
An exchange of ideas which occurs with no underlying threat that those ideas might become reality, with no possibility of action, is a meaningless exchange. This is why every year student groups face almost complete turnover, why service clubs are more popular than “activism,” why the apolitical always seems to triumph over the potential for transforming the University into a place that could actually challenge our social conditions.
“No critique is too radical among postmodernist thinkers, as long as it maintains a total absence of certitude. A century ago, scandal was identified with any particularly unruly and raucous negation, while today it’s found in any affirmation that fails to tremble. “ – The Coming Insurrection
In the past 8 or 9 months, UNC’s administration, in partnership with the Daily Tar Heel and the leadership of several student groups, has gone on the offensive to promote this concept of the marketplace of ideas. In response to repeated challenges from forces, both in and outside of the University, that stand in active opposition to the ultra-right-wing Youth for Western Civilization, this coalition of mediators, moderates, and bureaucrats have taken a normally unspoken framework implied by the inertia and timidity of campus “politics” and turned it into a vocal institution in and of itself.
Soon after the wildly successful disruption of a speaking event hosted by YWC on April 14th, in which an anti-immigrant ex-congressman was forced into an undignified trot upon being chased off by anti-racists, Chancellor Thorp sent an email to all students, condemning the largely participatory action and calling for a return to civil discourse. To a certain extent, his public shaming worked: just days later, leaders of both CHISPA, a Latino student group, as well as members of the Black Student Movement and student body president Jasmin Jones gathered in a circle with several members of the white supremacist YWC to hold hands and sing the school anthem. Cameras flashed, journalists rejoiced, and everything seemed to return to normal.
On another level, however, his shaming was a failure. A second YWC event was also disrupted, as well as protested from outside. Propaganda around campus continued to go up, urging fellow students to not be fooled by YWC’s attempts at political legitimacy or by calls for polite dialogue with a hate group. This work had its affect. Despite the DTH and Thorp’s pleas for civility and appeals to the marketplace of ideas, YWC’s advisor Chris Clemens quit his post, citing the group as too “inflammatory” and a magnet for “extreme left-wing” protests. In other words, the protests worked.
Actions have continued against YWC: on the first day of fall classes, 3,000 copies of the Daily Tar Heel were wrapped with a “special anti-racist edition,” which detailed YWC’s racist origins as well as the false opposition presented by liberal discourse around white supremacy and protest. A pamphlet exposing YWC’s new advisor as a racist collaborator prompted him into overreaction, thus causing the second resignation of a faculty sponsor. In order to combat this continued campaign, Thorp gave $3,000 out of a private fund to YWC, and personally sought three new advisors for the group, one of whom (Jon Curtis) is himself the head director of student organizations and activities. A conflict of interest, perhaps?!
Nearly every faculty member, bureaucrat, or student associated with YWC has publicly gone on record as opposing YWC’s national mission statement. And yet, amazingly, these professed “liberals” are the only thing keeping the group alive, pathetic martyrs to the existence of an idea that has no visible proponents on our campus. It’s one big joke: the idea that an idea’s opponents are obliged to support it merely so those opponents have something with which to peacefully debate. It is nonsense that can only be explained by the weakness of the administration’s position: With only one or two actual members, no public meetings, and a president that publicly criticizes his own group, YWC is in affect dead in the water. The anti-racists have basically won. So YWC becomes a corpse on life support, maintained by a concept of ideological exchange that is as meaningless as it is irrelevant to the way in which ideas actually travel in the real world.
Containing all affirmations and deactivating all certainties as they irresistibly come to light – such is the long labor of the Western intellect. The police and philosophy are two convergent, if formally distinct, means to this end. – The Coming Insurrection
The reason the administration and some faculty are so desperate to assure YWC’s “rightful place” is that the group’s abolition would be a tremendous defeat for the Liberal conception of the University, a rupture with how and why students are taught to enter into debate. The administration understands what most students do not, that in breaking with the marketplace of ideas, anti-racists presented an active critique of the primary tenets of Liberal discourse. More and more students around the country are challenging this discourse: from occupations and tree-sitting at UC-Santa Cruz to the shutting down of a speech by once-Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge in New York, the rickety framework of Liberalism is in shambles. Students wonder, could there be another way of doing politics?
Specifically, YWC opponents understand that debates around what is and is not white supremacist do not occur in a bubble, but in a society whose entire economic and political machinery was built upon and is maintained by racial hierarchies. Any debate around race takes place somewhere in that hierarchy, which is a structure that is permanently maintained by violence.
This violence isn’t just rhetoric. If students were to talk to Northside neighbors about police harassment, or have some honest conversations with the day laborers Jones Ferry Rd. about the conditions that brought them to the US, this would all be readily apparent. The realities that force people to move here from the Global South, that cause people to take shitty service work jobs on campus, are all conditioned by coercion and violence. To speak of the “free and equal exchange” of perspectives about immigration in a country where migrant workers die of pesticide exposure and families face deportation, where border walls partition the once-whole territories of indigenous people and private corporations run immigrant detention centers, is laughable. A debate where one side has the power to arrest, imprison, deport, or murder the other side is no debate at all. The “marketplace of ideas” model pretends to freeze these conflicts in order to conduct debate outside of real space and time, somehow removed from a physical world where the fate of migrants is not guided by ideas per se but actually by police, judges, racist vigilantes, bankers, authorities, wealth, power, interests.
Critics of the marketplace of ideas understand that in a country where nearly every textbook, every classroom, and every TV-screened political debate affirm the basic logic of capitalism and the State, the “free and equal exchange of ideas” is a hollow gesture. Given this larger context, most dialogue around “issues” is just a superficial repetition of foregone conclusions, based on the unexamined larger frameworks for understanding that we’ve already been given. This is what passes for “debate” in this society. It should be no surprise that its function is to keep things as they are.
What’s more, what is the point of debate if there is no sanctioned action to achieve the results of that debate? If every xenophobe was suddenly convinced of the barbarity of the Border, would the wall suddenly crumble? We would still find ourselves in a place where our only choices lie between the endless deliberations of useless politicians, on the one hand, and the direct action of our own social forces, on the other.
“War is nothing more than the continuation of politics by other means.” Karl Von Clausewitz
So this all raises the question: What happens when the debate is over? Do we act then? But what if our acting stifles further debate? Is that bad? When do we act?
The point of the “marketplace of ideas” is to ensure that the debate never ends, so that we never act. Debate only has meaning when we are prepared to act on our beliefs, to take risks beyond those of the classroom. This is why, despite the whining of Thorp and the Daily Tar Heel about the silencing of free speech, debate around issues of speech, immigration, and white supremacy was actually stronger after the events of past April. Debate has substance when it occurs in an honest context that reflects the daily, physical conflicts occurring inside and outside of the University. Discussion and critique must be imbued with the urgency of real life.
It would be interesting to ask what would have happened had anti-racists instead obeyed the expected rules for civil discourse. Tancredo’s speech could have proceeded uninterrupted, while he insulted immigrants and Hispanic culture generally, until eventually students would have gotten their chance to ask him some “hard questions.” He would have answered them politely, the students would feel a small nagging frustration, and everyone would go home peacefully to a world where immigrants are being incarcerated and deported, families separated, workers fired, and migrants killed. Surely little attention would have been paid to the event at all. NPR wouldn’t have done a story about the immigration debate, Mexican journalists wouldn’t have written sympathetic articles about pro-immigrant UNC students. YWC would probably have continued to grow, and had no trouble finding a new president this fall. Capitalizing on its new political legitimacy, the group might eventually have grown large enough to push policy changes at UNC, keeping undocumented students out of the classroom, making sure cops weren’t accountable for any racial profiling, among other things. All the while, the vast majority of UNC students could rest assured that there was nothing important enough to get worked up about. The cowardice and apprehension of campus “activism” would have gone untested.
Thankfully, this isn’t what happened. A tiny spark of excitement and tension was instead injected into campus life, along with the possibility of challenging not just a tiny racist student group but the larger framework of how we do politics. In reaction to this possibility, the administration is now actively aiding a group whose goal is the growth of a “right-wing youth movement on campus.” Thorp is doing this under the rubric of the marketplace of ideas, assuring the existence of a defunct group so that he can save face and make a bizarre gesture towards a skewed version of “free speech.”
Nevertheless, the unstable marketplace has been challenged, and for some, the house of cards has fallen. The administration has now shown its true colors, that it will actively aid a racist tendency if it means protecting the notion of Liberalism, thus preventing any kind of break with the current University framework. Students must decide whether or not they have the courage to act against the Administration on this issue, or will instead sit idly by while anti-immigrant ideas gain a foothold on our campus under the protection of the marketplace of ideas.
Free Speech FAQ:
myths around fascism and free speech
Stopping fascists from speaking makes you just as bad as them.
You could just as easily say that not stopping fascists from speaking—giving them the opportunity to organize to impose their agenda on the rest of us—makes you as bad as them. If you care about freedom, don’t stand idly by while people mobilize to take it away.
Shouldn’t we just ignore them? They want attention, and if we give it to them we’re letting them win.
Actually, fascists usually don’t want to draw attention to their organizing; they do most of it in secret for fear that an outraged public will shut them down. They only organize public events to show potential recruits that they have power, and to try to legitimize their views as part of the political spectrum. By publicly opposing fascists, we make it clear to them—and more importantly, to anyone else interested in joining them—that they will not be able to consolidate power over us without a fight. Ignoring fascists only allows them to organize unhindered, and history shows that this can be very dangerous. Better we shut them down once and for all.
The best way to defeat fascism is to let them express their views so that everyone can see how ignorant they are. We can refute them more effectively with ideas than force.
People don’t become fascists because they find their ideas persuasive; they become fascists for the same reason others become police officers or politicians: to wield power over other people. It’s up to us to show that fascist organizing will not enable them to obtain this power, but will only result in public humiliation. That is the only way to cut off their source of potential recruits.
History has shown over and over that fascism is not defeated by ideas alone, but by popular self-defense. We’re told that if all ideas are debated openly, the best one will win out, but this fails to account for the reality of unequal power. Fascists can be very useful to those with power and privilege, who often supply them with copious resources; if they can secure more airtime and visibility for their ideas than we can, we would be fools to limit ourselves to that playing field. We can debate their ideas all day long, but if we don’t prevent them from building the capacity to make them reality, it won’t matter.
Neo-Nazis are irrelevant; institutionalized racism poses the real threat today, not the extremists at the fringe.
The bulk of racism takes place in subtle, everyday forms. But fascist visibility enables other right-wing groups to frame themselves as moderates, helping to legitimize the racist and xenophobic assumptions underlying their positions and the systems of power and privilege they defend. Taking a stand against fascists is an essential step toward discredit- ing the structures and values at the root of institutionalized racism.
Here and worldwide, fascists still terrorize and murder people because of racial, religious, and sexual difference. It’s both naïve and disrespectful to their victims to gloss over the past and present realities of fascist violence. Because fascists believe in acting directly to carry out their agenda rather than limiting themselves to the apparatus of representative democracy, they can be more dangerous proportionate to their numbers than other bigots. This makes it an especially high priority to deal with them swiftly.
Free speech means protecting everyone’s right to speak, including people you don’t agree with. How would you like it if you had an unpopular opinion and other people were trying to silence you?
We oppose fascists because of what they do, not what they say. We’re not opposed to free speech; we’re opposed to the fact that they advance an agenda of hate and terror. We have no power to censor them; thanks to the “neutrality” of the capitalist market, they continue to publish hate literature in print and the internet. But we will not let them come into our communities to build the power they need to enact their hatred.
The government and the police have never protected everyone’s free speech equally, and never will. It is in their self-interest to repress views and actions that challenge existing power inequalities. They will spend hundreds of thousands of taxpayers’ dollars on riot police, helicopters, and sharpshooters to defend a KKK rally, but if there’s an anarchist rally the same police will be there to stop it, not to protect it.
Anarchists don’t like being silenced by the state—but we don’t want the state to define and manage our freedom, either. Unlike the ACLU, whose supposed defense of “freedom” leads them to support the KKK and others like them, we support self-defense and self-determination above all. What’s the purpose of free speech, if not to foster a world free from oppression? Fascists oppose this vision; thus we oppose fascism by any means necessary.
If fascists don’t have a platform to express their views peacefully, it will drive them to increasingly violent means of expression.
Fascists are only attempting to express their views “peacefully” in order to lay the groundwork for violent activity. Because fascists require a veneer of social legitimacy to be able to carry out their program, giving them a platform to speak opens the door to their being able to do physical harm to people. Public speech promoting ideologies of hate, whether or not you consider it violent on its own, always complements and correlates with violent actions. By affiliating themselves with movements and ideologies based on oppression and genocide, fascists show their intention to carry on these legacies of violence—but only if they can develop a base of support.
Trying to suppress their voices will backfire by generating interest in them.
Resistance to fascism doesn’t increase interest in fascist views. If anything, liberals mobilizing to defend fascists on free speech grounds increases interest in their views by conferring legitimacy on them. This plays directly into their organizing goals, allowing them to drive a wedge between their opponents using free speech as a smokescreen. By tolerating racism, homophobia, anti-Semitism, and xenophobia, so-called free speech advocates are complicit in the acts of terror fascist organizing makes possible.
They have rights like everybody else.
No one has the right to threaten our community with violence. Likewise, we reject the “right” of the government and police—who have more in common with fascists than they do with us—to decide for us when fascists have crossed the line from merely express- ing themselves into posing an immediate threat. We will not abdicate our freedom to judge when and how to defend ourselves.