As political euphemisms go, few are as overused as the defence of free speech. For many commentators, this is the galvanizing issue of the day, abstracted from whatever topic one might care to speak freely about in the first place. Free speech is an excellent cipher for all manner of threateningly specific content: everyone believes in free speech when they have something to say. As a single issue, then, it appears strategically abstract.
The formal emptiness and insincerity of this defence is laid bare in the rallying of various commentators to the cause of both David Frum and Steve Bannon at once, who appeared together in the Munk debate on “populism” this November, days ahead of the U.S. midterm election. The timing is auspicious for a GOP that Bannon won’t quite endorse, preferring a majoritarian appeal to widespread discontent. Here one may sense an unsavory pact between an establishment perspective and a co-opted discourse of resistance from below. But Bannon’s brand isn’t always so successful at market. He was recently dropped from the New Yorker Festival after an outpouring of contempt from both participants and attendees, and many expected a similar fate to befall his one Canadian engagement.
When David Remnick of the New Yorker issued a statement in defence of his decision to program Bannon, he cited his intention to ask the tough questions; as though the marketing appeal of an infamous guest doesn’t entirely depend on the consistency of their brand. Bannon is well-understood, and well-prepared for this kind of noble scolding.
Where last week’s Munk debate is concerned, at least one journalist, Jonathan Kay, tells us that he “came out of Roy Thomson Hall a better-informed person,” making a virtue of his own personal education, relative only to the ignorance he brought through the door. If Kay cannot think of a way to educate himself as to the niceties of global rightism without paying racists for a tutorial, then he should not claim intellectual disinterest in the first place.
One might add that Bannon is hardly the most odious speaker handsomely compensated by the philanthropic debate series. The Munk debates court controversy in their very design, hosting a rogue’s gallery of contrarian grifters and lawyerly say-nothings. The most credentialed of the lot include bourgeois economists and principled war criminals, Henry Kissinger foremost among them. Each debate puts a question, ponderous and provocative at once, to discussants, and these stagey referendums on policy are adjudicated on-the-spot by an audience whose class values are practically vetted at the point of RSVP. That the Bannon-Frum debate is no more or less sociopathic in its presumption than preceding installments, however, does not mean that it should take place unopposed.
Happily, this was not the case, as people came out to protest in droves. These protesters became a spectral presence in the hall, frequently invoked for effect by both speakers, with Frum claiming to be an ambassador to their concerns. In moderator Rudyard Griffiths’ introduction, physical attendees are congratulated for braving the ranks outside. Courage is the word; this virtue is extended to the debate’s sponsors, to its founder, even to those streaming online; those protesting the event are cowards by comparison, it seems. This high-minded pacifism of the word is as disingenuous as the ensuing program, throughout which a notorious hawk and a white nationalist skirt agreement at every chance.
Bannon thanks the demonstrators for exercising their free speech; he understands that if their protest can be converted from a barricade into a gathering, from a demand into only more discourse, then he will have gained something by their presence. Moments into Bannon’s address, a protestor unfurls a banner denouncing both the speaker and the event. Bannon looks charmed, and Griffiths reappears to restore order: “Let’s have a loud round of applause to thank this woman for her free speech rights. We appreciate that.” The audience whistles and crows at some length, Bannon too, before moderator Rudyard Griffiths addresses the protester from the stage: “We’re going to follow a policy tonight. This person has been cautioned. If she does not stop she will unfortunately be asked to leave this debate.” And moments later: “Sorry, you’re still engaging. Officers, if we can move forward with our plan, we’re going to remove this person from the hall. A big round of applause for the Toronto police services this evening. Fabulous job.”
Free speech as a thesis appears to require the police. In a crowing appraisal of the event, journalist Jonathan Kay approves: “It was only when she kept on jabbering that two officers escorted her out with all the gentleness of an elderly relative being walked to her pew at a wedding. Clearly, these officers would never have cut it as brownshirts.” Kay is apparently delighted to discover that the police know better than to maul someone before a crowded auditorium, although his dwelling on the “gentleness” of their approach implies a bystander’s assent to treatment more severe. This is a carefully managed production, in which Kay acts an over-eager part.
It is worth lingering over the glibness of Kay’s review. In narcissistic fashion, Kay sees the protesters as a physical manifestation of his own punditry: “It’s always gratifying when real life actors conspire to validate claims that an author makes in the abstract realm,” he writes, citing his own pedantically denialist typology of latter-day Nazis, published on Quillette the same week. “Just days before, I had noted progressives’ now-epidemic habit of labeling everyone they dislike as a—real, not figurative—Nazi. And now, just days later, here I was, in a security line outside Roy Thomson Hall, surrounded by hundreds of protestors declaring Bannon to be a Nazi, and we audience members to be on moral par with Hitler’s followers.”
Kay’s highly selective nominalism is ironic given that he and his sulking ilk are happy to mistake anyone remotely left of centre-right for some brand of Bolshevik: he can’t even remain accountable to the terms of his own anachronistic imaginary. Like so many free speech crusaders, Kay lacks the strength of his own convictions; save for the conviction of conviction itself, the insipid genericity of which descends from having been convicted of an opinion one may or may not hold in the first place. Kay, like so many free-speechifiers, appears frequently incensed at the insinuation that he might actually have said or intended something, anything at all.
Kay’s own biliousness lays bare the libidinal stakes of the matter: for the mercenary defence of free speech in general nonetheless conveys sympathy to innumerable pet causes. This point is of some urgency: the abstract value of free speech is always concretely reducible to the causes for which it operates, and Kay’s own specific fixations manifest online with the virulence of any nagging symptom. When confronted over the manner and content of his communication, the bad-faith interlocutor tends to formal abstraction, insisting repetitively upon his right to have communicated anything whatsoever. This itself is a display of unwarranted force.
Why dwell on Kay in opposition to Bannon’s message, though, when Kay professes both polite interest in Bannon’s talking points as well as disdain for Trump? If anything the message of this moment is that Bannon is but vapour without his enablers, who become apologists for ‘discourse’ in general, of which Bannon is a noxious part. What makes commentators like Kay so susceptible to this kind of formal subterfuge?
Kay is a host of Wrongspeak, a podcast devoted to discussion of "the things we believe to be true but cannot say." This program is immediately mired in performative contradiction, for the hosts are obviously empowered to say those very things, and proceed to do so in a paranoid and self-congratulatory tone. Such persecution fantasies are staple talking points of new conservatives, who nonetheless decry victim culture in its various supposed manifestations. This is a key Bannonite manoeuvre, too: for one sure way to secure power is to see that it is constantly rearticulated with reference to a nebulous threat.
This tactic produces strange discursive reversals. The powerful are underdogs, the marginalized are bullies. Another way to consolidate power is to repudiate it in a fit of paranoia. For example, free speech absolutist Jordan Peterson decries a morally corrosive relativism that proliferates dissenting viewpoints. This makes his frequent cries for free and unfettered speech appear somewhat contradictory, insofar as the necessity of free speech, to whatever end, intensifies alongside an apparent weakening of social cohesion. Only in the most provisional sense do so-called traditionalists like Peterson, or Bannon for that matter, champion free speech: for the ideal society that they nostalgically project is unitary to the degree that an unpopular opinion wouldn’t manifest to begin with. It is the paradoxical lot of authoritarian personalities to defend the marketplace of ideas, out of nostalgia for a master signifier that would preclude viewpoints other than their own.
This highly exclusive social cohesion is the professed dream of Bannon’s populism, the putative topic of a sham debate that never should have happened in the first place; and shame on liberals for allowing him the conceptual Trojan Horse of free speech, a value for which the right cares only tactically. Bannon’s specious thesis as to the inevitable ascent of so-called populism, left or right, at least acknowledges the proper antagonist of his worldview to consist on the left, which is to say, entirely elsewhere than with his sparring partner, a hawkish conservative. Any formal endorsement of the debate in sum, encompassing the Frum-and-Bannon pair, is practically impossible, for Bannon’s is the far more potent signifier, such that any liberal defence of the proceedings is already to his benefit.
For reason of this cunning, Bannon will happily submit time and again to interlocutors such as Bill Maher, David Remnick, or the hapless Frum; he understands that they are not his antithesis, and that liberalism remains more or less powerless before the force of his rhetoric, not least of all because its only categorical value is his freedom to inveigh. As for the Jonathan Kays of the world, their idle punditry does calculable harm, no matter where on an increasingly quaint spectrum one locates their politics. Such obvious bedfellows are less odd than essential; knowing this, we may reject both far-right slogans and liberal apologia for the same.