This week’s protests to prevent a controversial speaker – Milo Yiannopolis – from speaking at the University of California at Berkeley, are a sad indictment of the of the state of progressive politics. The location of the incident, once the birthplace of a great liberal movement, makes for a sad comparison with the great radical era of the 1960s.
Those of us who were teenage activists in the 1980s felt we’d missed out on something. Our parents’ generation (at least, in our imaginations) had the civil rights movement, the great anti-Vietnam war protests, the hippy movement, Black Power and psychedelia. Their soundtrack was Marvin Gaye, Bob Dylan, Otis Redding, Joan Baez, Motown, Simon and Garfunkel. We had Reagan and Thatcher, mass unemployment, power ballads, and yuppies. They had great progressive victories, we got used to experiencing defeats.
We, children of a grey London that was run down and depressed after half a century of economic decline, dreamed of the California of the 1960s. I read Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers comics, and knew all about San Francisco’s famous Haight-Ashbury district, the centre of counterculture, although in reality, my entire experience of travelling outside Britain was limited to a couple of short trips to France.
And I read about the university campus at Berkeley, near San Francisco, the heartland of 1960s American radicalism; a radicalism which, already by the 80s, was ebbing away. In response to repression, Berkeley had been birthplace to the Free Speech Movement of 1964-65, which aimed to ensure that everybody on campus was given their right to speak. It was, in today’s terms, the mirror image of the current student obsession with “no platforming” (i.e. censoring) ideas considered unacceptable. While the movement was left wing, it is important to realise that it created a space for all political speech. As the Wiki page notes: “This applied to the entire student political spectrum, not just the liberal elements that drove the Free Speech Movement”.
Contrast this anti-censorship attitude with what happened this week. Milo Yiannopolis, a provocative speaker of the right, was due to talk about “cultural appropriation” – a bizarre, illiberal idea, now popular on the left, that access to culture should be segregated by race. “Cultural appropriation” popularises on the left an idea that the 1960s left stood firmly against: that people should be treated differently based on nothing but their skin colour or racial origin. It is a bullying and authoritarian ideology, and has resulted in racist incidents like a famous attack on a white man for the “crime” of wearing dreadlocks, and the cancellation of a reggae festival because too many white people were involved.
Milo is a well known shit-stirrer, and enjoys winding up easily-offended illiberal types. He’s annoying, often (but not always) wrong, and I’ve done my best to avoid him. Unfortunately, some on the left have decided instead to promote him, by protesting against him, having him no-platformed, or calling him a “Nazi” for no good reason. Thanks to these intolerant arseholes, we’ve had to put up with Milo being everywhere, and getting a lucrative book deal. Thinking about it, this is pretty much the same way that “liberals” helped Donald Trump reach power. Thanks guys.
Fans of George Orwell will enjoy what happened next. Milo (a gay, Jewish man), due to speak out against a racist, pro-segregationist ideology, faced protest by people calling him a “Nazi”. The talk was cancelled, and riots ensued. And (did I mention?) all this happened at Berkeley, once the home of the Free Speech Movement. Oh, and then Donald J Trump, perhaps the closest thing to a fascist ever elected in America, tweeted to defend free speech against attacks from left-wing Berkeley students. We live in the age of irony. Or perhaps the era of facepalm.
Western liberalism is facing its greatest threat since the 1940s, if ever. The far-right may soon seize control in France, the Netherlands and elsewhere in Europe. And if you’re expecting a defence of liberalism from the left, it seems you’ll be disappointed.
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Free speech must be defended as a universal human right. Human rights cannot be stripped from people on the basis that they’re Muslims or Communists. Nor can they be stripped from people on the basis that they offend other people. The left will not defeat the fascist right by being more fascist than the right. That way lies tyranny.