Before last year’s presidential election, Donald Trump was solidly the candidate of anger — anger at elites, anger at the media and anger at the yawning gap between the rural and urban Americas. As part of this anger, Trump foretold destruction — draining the swamp and dismantling NATO, all while building a big beautiful wall. He was a “disrupter,” that faddish term economists use to describe upstart startups. Clinton’s message of hope couldn’t withstand Trump’s brand of change.
Now Trump and his motley crew have taken over the White House and those who were angry before are no longer quite so. Populist elements of his blue-collar base have been soothed by his attacks on those “enemies of the people,” on the fourth estate who have been conjuring news from thin air. (“The leaks are real, but the news is fake.”) Big business — the greediest alligators in that Washington swamp — have also been riding high as stocks soar and Trump promises a bonfire of red tape (I wonder if the fumes will do anything more to further addle the man’s brain).
Thus the mantle of anger has passed to the left. The Women’s March and the protests against the immigration ban fiercely demonstrated the resistance Trump can expect to his blundering policies.
However the most virulent expressions of rage on the left have not been directed at any new policies or any new actions by those in power, but at free speech. One has only to look at the recent cancellation of a speech by then-Breitbart editor Milo Yiannopoulos at University of California, Berkeley after protests against his appearance turned violent.
Yes, Yiannopoulos (he may prefer to go by “MILO” but such a moniker is much too facile for a man who rather gleefully promotes himself as a “dangerous faggot”) is an absurd provocateur making absurd points with little basis in ideology, but he should be free to speak his mind. Even if his verbiage is the discursive equivalent of the Exxon Valdez.I can despise Yiannopoulos for his comments on race and feminism and his condonement of paedophilia while holding dear his right to express such noxious bilge.
Forcefully silencing figures such as Yiannopoulos (or Dutch far-right politician Geert Wilders, who was recently convicted in absentia of hate speech) may seem cathartic to some, but only serves to further enrage and radicalize the far-right’s anger against liberals. The American centre is shrinking from the erosion of foundational ideals on both sides of the aisle.
The United States has a long and complicated history with free speech, from the Sedition Acts to the Red Scare. Indeed, patriotism has often been equated with undermining that most American ideal — in the words of the general secretary of the red-baiters, “McCarthyism is Americanism with its sleeves rolled.” For all we may try, we cannot escape ourselves.
Though technology has now advanced sufficiently to nearly completely guarantee free speech in the virtual realm, free speech means little without the ability to commune in person. For that is the most effective way to speak truth to power, through united, concerted action. The actions of those like the Berkeley demonstrators are as anti-American as what they complain against. In this it seems that America is suffering from one of its periodic crises of confidence.
This country is witnessing creeping authoritarianism not only in a rightist White House but also on leftist campuses across the country. In this political moment, Trump is far from having a monopoly on anti-democratic views.
We must work towards an enlightened society in which each individual has their confidence in their own views tempered with a healthy humility towards those of others, such that we may refute arguments based on reason rather than withdrawing ourselves into our own familiar darknesses.
The content of speech should not be used as a justification for its denial. Unless uttering a direct exhortation to violence, individuals must be free to speak their mind. The remedy for hateful speech is more speech, not less. Free speech is what some have termed the master ideal — without free speech it is impossible to guard those rights that appear more immediate. Without guarding the freedoms of those with whom I disagree, however abhorrent their views, it can never be long before there will be no one left to speak for me.
Alex Davies is a Senior in the College of Arts & Sciences. Have I got News for You? runs every other Thursday this semester. Alex can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org