By Robert Wargas
Even as I write this, I can feel the Overton Window shifting. Let the record show that when a death squad descended on Pamela Geller’s event in Texas with the aim of killing Geller for speaking freely, the “mainstream” response was to provide the death squad with golden parachutes of sophistry and moral equivalence. It was the finest of East Coast intellectual output.
I’ve lost count of how many sophistic articles have been published so far, but surely one of the most egregious came from Noah Feldman, JD, PhD, at Bloomberg View. In opening paragraphs so glib they seem to have oozed out of some used car salesman’s Brylcreemed pompadour, Feldman writes:
It’s easy to be distracted by the condemnation of the crime, which should be absolute. No verbal provocation can justify killing.
But it’s also easy to be distracted by the First Amendment.
Why do people write this kind of thing? What compels someone to consider a case of attempted terrorist murder, arising from the “provocation” of cartoons, and then devote all his forensic acumen to saying, essentially, “Hey! Look over there!”
I wrote last week that the enemies of free speech are slowly nudging their target into the identity-politics framework. In this worldview, there are Oppressors and the Oppressed, and the roles are irreversible. It’s all narrative: the interlocking assumptions that determine how people interpret real-world events. The identity-politics framework sees American society (all of Western civilization, in fact) as a structure, a machine expertly tuned to produce benefits only for the Oppressor. Some people always win; some always lose. Thus Geller is the real aggressor, even when she’s being shot at. The death squad was merely reacting to overwhelming forces within the structure.
This is the basic logic behind most of our contemporary debate, such as it is, on everything from free speech to immigration to race riots to voter ID laws. There are hard and soft versions of it. Some people come right out and say that the Oppressed should use violence against their Oppressors. This group is often very theoretical, using the unwieldy concepts and jargon they learned in their cultural studies courses. You see them at places like (of course) Salon and The Nation and the post-Peretz New Republic.
Others channel their narrative in a softer, mealy mouthed way, usually with the well practiced preamble “I believe in X, but…,” X being some bedrock value of our country. This latter group is less explicit about their assumptions, probably because they don’t know they have them. You’ll find these people at the more “mainstream” media outlets.
Whether they’re “hards” or “softs”—we could use the old Thatcherite terminology of “wets” and “dries” if you want—the people who argue this way have particular beliefs about power in our country. This is why charging them with hypocrisy never works. After incidents like the Geller event, many conservatives go straight to work documenting the double standard. We’re not allowed to draw Mohammed, the alleged prophet of Islam, but others are allowed to depict Jesus submerged in urine. These articles are necessary, but you’ll have noticed they don’t move the apologist crowd even one inch.
There’s a reason for this. In the identity-politics framework, double standards are necessary and justified. They are a way of balancing the unequal power distribution in the United States. (Trust me that I hate writing sentences with phrases like that.) Just as affirmative action is supposed to correct structural injustice in the economy, gagging people is necessary to stop the “oppression” of designated victim groups. Think of the new obsession with “trigger warnings” and “safe places” on university campuses. This crowd sees free speech as one more tool of power in the Oppressor’s handy box.
Something else is going on here, however, regarding Geller’s treatment in the media.