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The Free Speech Fetish is American Exceptionalism on Steroids

Harper’s “Letter” is little more than an exercise in white insecurity and opportunism among so-called liberal sections of the establishment.

Anyone engaged in a struggle for liberation should oppose corporations determining what is ‘free speech’ and what is ‘hate speech.’

Cancel culture is being widely debated among a broad section of the American intelligentsia—from the most powerful figures in the pundit class to so-called leftists in academia and socialist tendencies. Harper’s “Letter”  poured kerosene on a debate that really began when corporations and other institutions of white imperialist power frantically responded to the uprising against racist policing by “cleaning house.” In truth, the letter would never have been written at all if New York Times Opinion editor James Bennett was not fired for publishing Tom Cotton’s racist and militarist screed against the incipient movement. Mainstream pundits and journalists who have engaged for decades in the censorship of the broad masses of people are now clutching their pearls amid a mass movement that has pushed the question of race and white supremacy to the forefront of political life. The “free speech” debate spurred by Harper’s “Letter” exemplifies American exceptionalism on steroids and is a blatant demonstration of the failures of the American intelligentsia.

It could be argued that within the U.S. context, “free speech” has little meaning from the point of view of the oppressed.The United States supposedly enshrined the right to free speech and assembly in its Constitution but did so only for the capitalist elite at the helm of a white supremacist power structure. African and Indigenous victims of settler colonialism were not merely left out of the construction of the United States. They were violently “canceled” by way of state sanctioned terrorism in such forms as Fugitive Slave laws  and genocidal campaigns  to strip Indigenous People of their land. If the 2nd Amendment codified the right of white colonial militias to arm themselves in a crusade to stamp out slave rebellions and plunder indigenous territories, why then is the First Amendment’s “right to free speech” not seen as a weapon to empower the very same class with exclusive freedoms to write history in the image of the U.S.’ settler colonial and imperialist mode of production?

Such hypocrisy is a demonstration of American exceptionalism on steroids. While members of the intelligentsia feel comfortable placing their names next to Zionist fanatics such as Bari Weiss , plagiarizing warmongers such as Fareed Zakaria,  or arch-neocons like David Frum , state-sponsored repression has intensified for sections of the left engaged in the struggle against war, white supremacy, and capitalist austerity. The capture of activists by federal agents in the streets of Portland is no “dress rehearsal” for fascism; it is a logical extension of the fascist underpinnings of U.S. society which are always in motion against Black movement activists. Scores of Black activists connected to the 2014 uprising in Ferguson have mysteriously died , leading many to believe their deaths are a byproduct of the FBI’s “Black Identity Extremism”  counterinsurgency operation. The official Holman Square black site operated by the Chicago Police Department  has detained and tortured thousands of Black Americans and denied them free speech or due process. None of these examples have inspired Harper’s Letter signatories to wage a similar campaign against the cancellation of Black Americans or their movements.

The call for “free speech” thus rings hollow since no attention is given to the forces actually being suppressed by the state. There is no question that TheNew York Times and social media platforms have engaged in a faux liberal response to the uprising against racist policing that seeks to monopolize ideological debate and discourse. Anyone who considers themselves to be engaged in a struggle for liberation should oppose Facebook, Google, or any other corporation having the ability to determine what is “free speech” and what is “hate speech.” But this isn’t a new phenomenon. Capitalism is predicated upon unleashing the freedom of the capitalist class to exploit workers and the oppressed, which is why the workplace is one of the most undemocratic and repressive environments under the system. The dictatorship of capital inevitably leads to a dictatorship over the means of communication and no better example of this exists than the high-tech and extensive spying powers of the U.S. state.

The New York Times and social media platforms have engaged in a faux liberal response to the uprising against racist policing.

Why, then, is so much animosity being directed at “cancel culture” and not the forces of capitalist and imperialist treachery doing the canceling? The logic isn’t particularly nuanced. Those who signed the letter have a vested interest in maintaining the illusion of American exceptionalism. It is good for their careers. As Max Blumenthal discussed on The Pushback, there is no outrage about “cancel culture” when the ruling class destroys the careers of pro-Palestinian academics, passes anti-BDS laws in several U.S. states, or deploys the Pentagon to fuel proxy wars and sanctions that silence entire nations such as Syria. No singular “cancel culture” exists and to assert otherwise is to be complicit in the smearing of radical political activity.

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The recent fetishization of “free speech” has emerged in response to the movement against racist policing which has struck fear into the hearts of the ruling class. Minneapolis’ rebellion spread to cities across the country and inspired millions of people in the United States to protest killer cops and the racist regime they protect. “Black Lives Matter” chants vocalized the rage of a generation plagued by a non-existent response to a deadly pandemic, a Great Depression in the capitalist economy, and a brutally racist and repressive system of law enforcement. Corporations and their handlers within all levels of the U.S. state immediately reacted to the movement with a combination of repression and placation. The reaction was immense in scale even if the material impact of racist policing remains unchanged. While there is no doubt that the internecine struggle within the ruling class to contain the rebellion led to counterrevolutionary dynamics such as an overemphasis on symbolism, this has been mistakenly assessed by some in the American intelligentsia as an overall reflection of the movement rather than the forces of reaction that seek to destroy it.

No singular ‘cancel culture’ exists and to assert otherwise is to be complicit in the smearing of radical political activity.

That Noam Chomsky and a select few “left” academics and writers failed to make this distinction and instead signed their names next to warmongers and imperialists is deeply troubling. It reveals a deep failure on the part of the American intelligentsia as a whole, regardless of which side of the political aisle individual members claim to represent. Harper’s “Letter” is a testament to the enduring belief that so-called cultural institutions such as academia and the corporate media are in fact “ours” in the first place. The U.S. is a class society with deeply racist roots that reverberate through each and every institution. Academia and mass corporate media are two of the most important tools of ideological social control that normalize racism and imperial hegemony under the guise of exceptional values such as “free speech” and “democracy.” These values offer a terrain of struggle in and of themselves—not a struggle for social justice or liberation but of rendering the U.S. a more perfect union for the oppressed and oppressor alike to coexist together within a nation chosen by god.

American exceptionalism makes many exceptions, none of which are the subject of Harper’s “Letter.” The signatories appear unwilling to confront the modern manifestations of the U.S.’ original sins of white supremacy and colonialism. Corporate efforts to institute “diversity” are not the only dangerous form of American exceptionalism and liberal repression that the ruling class wields to reproduce its dominance over society. The Harper’s “Letter” approach of opposing the corporate trend toward “diversity” is a right deviation masquerading as a crusade for “free speech.” It amounts to little more than a further attempt to silence Black movement politics in the midst of one of the most intense explosions of Black resistance in two generations.

The real struggle against “cancel culture” resides between the exploited classes and the ruling class. To paraphrase Amilcar Cabral, people do not fight for ideas, they fight for the material things that will improve the lives of themselves, their families, and their communities. Ideology is an important aspect of this struggle. The demand for justice of any kind always poses the question: how does the movement arrive at victory? Harper’s “Letter” teaches us that the fight for an abstract “free speech” brings us no closer to the eradication of war, racism, and austerity nor the new set of social relations required to bring such conditions about. Speech does not trump economic and political power, unless such speech rests upon the empowerment of the few at the expense of the many. This is the American story that too many in the intelligentsia work so hard to avoid.

Black Agenda Report has never wavered in its commitment to exposing the enemies of the movement both internal and external. The commitment is motivated by an enduring love of the people and a deep desire to strengthen its movements, especially the Black movement. No social movement or uprising that emerges out of the excrements of this rotten imperialist system is without its limitations and contradictions. An overemphasis on the real or imagined limitations of any movement is a common error of those who at baseline remain committed to the notion that the United States can and one day become a living embodiment of American exceptionalism. These forces sitting in their ivory towers or behind their comfortable media platforms deny the fact that much of Black America and indeed the world view the United States as a terrorist state based in the cruelest forms of dehumanization and exploitation known in the history of human civilization.

The refusal to acknowledge the system of imperialist cancellation that produces political prisoners such as Julian Assange, Mumia Abu-Jamal, and all prisoners of war renders Harper’s “Letter” worse than fraudulent. So does the simultaneous pleading to the powers of exclusion themselves to open more room within their repressive media apparatus. Harper’s “Letter” is little more than an exercise in white insecurity and opportunism among so-called liberal sections of the establishment who so hopelessly cling to American exceptionalism even as the Empire continues to decline.

Worse, “free speech” zeal against an amorphous “cancel culture” reinforces the common myth that racism is a secondary or debatable issue and makes the movement more vulnerable to attacks from its enemies. Such a fate cannot be allowed to stand, which is why it is imperative to expose the failures of the Harper’s Letter signatories and the consequences of their actions.


Ajamu Baraka
Black Agenda Report