Free speech on and off campus: In defense of George Ciccariello-Maher

Yes­ter­day I learned that George Cic­car­i­ello-Ma­h­er, an as­so­ciate pro­fess­or at Drexel Uni­versity in Phil­adelphia, has re­cently come un­der fire for a stu­pid joke he sent out on Twit­ter a couple of days ago. On Christ­mas Eve, he tweeted: “All I want for Christ­mas is white gen­o­cide.” Im­me­di­ately Cic­car­i­ello-Ma­h­er began re­ceiv­ing angry replies and death threats. Soon the right-wing news di­gest Breit­bart picked up the story, which then led to fur­ther out­cry around the web. Drexel re­spon­ded the next day by is­su­ing a state­ment that con­demned the “in­flam­mat­ory tweet,” call­ing it “ut­terly rep­re­hens­ible” while as­sur­ing read­ers that the school “takes this mat­ter very ser­i­ously.”

Need­less to say, this is an out­rageous ef­fort by a ma­jor con­ser­vat­ive out­let to muzzle a minor left-wing aca­dem­ic. By whip­ping up pub­lic in­dig­na­tion, this gang of on­line re­ac­tion­ar­ies hopes to ex­ert enough in­sti­tu­tion­al pres­sure to threaten Cic­car­i­ello-Ma­h­er’s live­li­hood. This comes only a few weeks after the un­veil­ing of Turn­ing Point USA’s Pro­fess­or Watch­list, a neo-Mc­Carthy­ite ini­ti­at­ive that pur­ports to mon­it­or “pro­fess­ors who ad­vance a rad­ic­al agenda in lec­ture halls” by com­pil­ing a dossier of their “sub­vers­ive” activ­it­ies. Were Drexel to pun­ish or oth­er­wise dis­cip­line Cic­car­i­ello-Ma­h­er, it would set an alarm­ing pre­ced­ent. Ex­tra­mur­al polit­ic­al speech ought to be pro­tec­ted.

Cyn­thia Walk­er has drawn up a pe­ti­tion in sup­port of the em­battled pro­fess­or, which I en­cour­age every­one to sign. I’ve ad­ded my own sig­na­ture to it, along with sev­en thou­sand or so who have done like­wise, des­pite some linger­ing doubts about the ef­fic­acy of such meas­ures. (Maybe oth­er people had more ex­cit­ing civics classes than I did, but I nev­er much saw the point of writ­ing con­cerned let­ters or fer­vent en­treat­ies. Just takes a second, though, so it’s not really a hassle). Re­gard­less of what one may think of him, it’s not as if he de­serves to lose his job over this petty shit.

Selective solidarity after Charlie Hebdo

Un­for­tu­nately, the Left of late has been rather re­miss in de­fend­ing prin­ciples like free­dom of speech, free­dom of as­sembly, and free­dom of the press. Prin­ciples it once cham­pioned, moreover, even when these fell un­der the head­ing of “bour­geois right.” Joshua Clover had a piece in The Na­tion last year en­titled Speech­bros, Con­cern Trolls, and the Free-Speech Fraud.” (Trot­sky was right, it seems, when in 1940 he de­plored “The Rep­tile Breed of The Na­tion.”) Back in 2014, Fred­die De­Bo­er wondered aloud: “Is the so­cial justice left really abandon­ing free speech?” Corey Robin answered De­Bo­er with a de­cis­ive “no” in an art­icle for Jac­obin.

One flash­point for is­sues of free speech in re­cent years has been the French magazine Charlie Hebdo. Verso even re­leased a list of re­com­men­ded read­ings from its cata­logue back in Janu­ary 2015 on the theme of “free speech and Is­lamo­pho­bia.” Leigh Philips, reply­ing to Richard Sey­mour’s same-day de­nun­ci­ation of the murdered car­toon­ists as a bunch of elit­ist Is­lamo­phobes, high­lighted the “wor­ry­ing trend on the Left to dis­miss free­dom of ex­pres­sion as part of the co­lo­ni­al­ist project, to re­pu­di­ate free speech as a mean­ing­less elite piety.” Against this ri­poste, Sey­mour in­cred­u­lously asked: “This isn’t really about free speech, is it?” He claimed that Philips was

all puffed up and macho when it comes to piss­ing on Muslims with ra­cist in­vect­ive in the name of “free speech,” but strangely pi­ous, hu­mor­less, and cen­sori­ous when some people de­cline to go along with the spec­tacle of “Je Suis Charlie.” For free speech, but mainly up in arms about the way it af­fects white people and is threatened by brown people.

Fol­low­ing the murders in Par­is, Cic­car­i­ello-Ma­h­er was an­oth­er out­spoken crit­ic of Charlie Hebdo. “Yeah, but for real though… Fuck Charlie Hebdo,” he tweeted just hours after they were gunned down. Nev­er­the­less, I do not hes­it­ate to ex­tend to him the solid­ar­ity he read­ily with­held from oth­ers. Even if that means I must up­hold his right to go on pseudo-woke diatribes about the sup­posed “dangers” of man­dat­ory vac­cines. Or even though his free speech in­cludes far­fetched con­spir­acy the­or­ies about how the San Bern­ardino shoot­ings were a “false flag” or­ches­trated by three white mean wear­ing mil­it­ary fa­tigues, in­tend­ing to fo­ment hatred of Muslims.

Still, Cic­car­i­ello-Ma­h­er’s sub­sequent cla­ri­fic­a­tion of his satir­ic­al tweet is rather good, ac­tu­ally, so I’ll re­post an ex­cerpt: “For those who haven’t bothered to do their re­search, ‘white gen­o­cide’ is an ima­gin­ary concept in­ven­ted by white su­prem­acists to de­nounce everything from in­ter­ra­cial re­la­tion­ships to mul­ti­cul­tur­al policies (and most re­cently, against a tweet by State Farm In­sur­ance). ‘White gen­o­cide’ is a fig­ment of the ra­cist ima­gin­a­tion that should be mocked, and I’m glad to have mocked it.” Cic­car­i­ello-Ma­h­er is right about the ori­gins of the concept in the para­noid de­lu­sions of ra­cists.

Bolivarianism, posturing, and “post-gangsta hip-hop”

However, it prob­ably didn’t help that he had pre­vi­ously ex­plained that what he meant by “white gen­o­cide” was that “when whites were mas­sacred dur­ing the Haitian re­volu­tion, that was a good thing in­deed.” And here I was think­ing that CLR James’ whole ar­gu­ment to­ward the end of The Black Jac­obins was that the fi­nal mas­sacre of re­main­ing French whites in Haiti was a cata­strophe for its en­tire pop­u­la­tion, ren­der­ing the coun­try wholly de­pend­ent on Brit­ish ex­pert­ise. Not that Cic­car­i­ello-Ma­h­er ever read it, of course, just like he’s nev­er read the Mani­festo. James wrote that

[t]he mas­sacre of the whites was a tragedy; not for the whites. For the old slave own­ers, those who burnt a little powder in the arse of a negro, who bur­ied him alive for in­sects to eat, who were well treated by Tous­saint, and who, as soon as they got the chance, began their old cruel­ties again; for them there is no need to waste one tear or one drop of ink. The tragedy was for the blacks and the mu­lat­toes. It was not policy but re­venge, and re­venge has no place in polit­ics. The whites were no longer to be feared, and such pur­pose­less mas­sacres de­grade and bru­tal­ize a pop­u­la­tion, es­pe­cially one which was just be­gin­ning as a na­tion and had had so bit­ter a past. The people did not want it — all they wanted was free­dom. and in­de­pend­ence seemed to prom­ise that. Chris­tophe and oth­er gen­er­als strongly dis­ap­proved. Had the Brit­ish and the Amer­ic­ans thrown their weight on the side of hu­man­ity, Des­salines might have been curbed. As it was, Haiti suffered ter­ribly from the res­ult­ing isol­a­tion. Whites were ban­ished from Haiti for gen­er­a­tions, and the un­for­tu­nate coun­try, ruined eco­nom­ic­ally, its pop­u­la­tion lack­ing in cul­ture, had its in­ev­it­able dif­fi­culties doubled by this mas­sacre. That the new na­tion sur­vived at all is forever to its cred­it, for if the Haitians thought that im­per­i­al­ism was fin­ished with them, they were sorely mis­taken.

Edgy pos­tur­ing of this sort is noth­ing new for Cic­car­i­ello-Ma­h­er. But it’s just that: pos­tur­ing. Watch­ing white people ac­cuse oth­er white people of be­ing white on so­cial me­dia is one of my fa­vor­ite pas­times on the Left, and he’s among the worst of­fend­ers. This is a dude who some­how man­ages to keep a straight face while writ­ing art­icles with titles like “Brech­tian Hip-Hop: Di­dactics and Self-Pro­duc­tion in Post-Gang­sta Polit­ic­al Mix­tapes” and “Cri­tique of Du Boisi­an Reas­on: Kanye West and the Fruit­ful­ness of Double-Con­scious­ness” (Kanye was last seen chilling with Trump, so ap­par­ently that “tra­ject­ory of rad­ic­al­iz­a­tion” lauded in this ri­dicu­lous es­say didn’t pan out).

George Cic­car­i­ello-Ma­h­er is that in­suf­fer­able white guy who feels per­fectly com­fort­able lec­tur­ing black Marx­ists such as Ad­olph Reed or Bar­bara Fields about white su­prem­acy. One al­most gets the sense from fol­low­ing his on­line per­sona over the years that he would uniron­ic­ally re­act to neg­at­ive re­views of his new book, De­col­on­iz­ing Dia­lectics, with Ali G’s be­wildered re­frain — “is it ’cause I is black?”

And so I hope read­ers will for­give me for not gush­ing over his “ex­cel­lent work on Venezuela and polit­ic­al the­ory,” as Robin put it in a blog post. Cic­car­i­ello-Ma­h­er is a shame­less shill for the Bolivari­an re­gime in Venezuela. He sup­por­ted Chavez’s re­pres­sion of loc­al an­arch­ists a few years back and ra­tion­al­ized Ma­duro’s in­dis­crim­in­ate de­port­a­tion of Colom­bi­an im­mig­rants last sum­mer. No one who sup­ports pet­rol pop­u­lism should be taken ser­i­ously by left com­mun­ists, much less com­mun­isateurs, yet many of them do (per­haps on ac­count of their shared love of ri­ot porn). To be hon­est, I really hope he was on the take from the gov­ern­ment in Ca­ra­cas. Oth­er­wise, why would he sell his word so cheap?

Marxism and freedom of speech

Des­pite all this, and leav­ing out any past beef, I res­ol­utely op­pose pun­it­ive ac­tion be­ing taken to­ward Cic­car­i­ello-Ma­h­er by Drexel Uni­versity. Or at least, to the ex­tent any in­di­vidu­al can. Robin, to his great cred­it, is one of the more con­sist­ent de­fend­ers of polit­ic­al liber­ties out there on the Left. Marx­ists can­not af­ford to be in­dif­fer­ent to ques­tions of free speech. Al­though FD of In­ter­na­tion­al­ist Per­spect­ive cor­rectly notes that “Demo­cracy Hides the Dic­tat­or­ship of Cap­it­al,” he hastens to add that “[t]he struggle for free­dom — the struggle for free­dom of speech, the struggle to be able to think freely, the struggle for re­cog­ni­tion — was al­ways a de­mand of work­ers.”

Louis-Georges Schwartz, whose Deleuzeans of grandeur I’ve writ­ten about be­fore, in­sists that “see­ing [the George Cic­car­i­ello-Ma­h­er con­tro­versy] through the op­tics of free speech is just bour­geois ideo­logy.” Yet Marx him­self strongly ad­voc­ated for ba­sic civil rights in a fam­ous series of art­icles “On the Free­dom of the Press” (1842), po­lem­i­ciz­ing against Prus­si­an cen­sor­ship. He mer­ci­lessly mocked the reas­on­ing of rep­res­ent­at­ives from the urb­an es­tates: “Free­dom of the press is a fine thing. But there are also bad per­sons, who mis­use speech to tell lies and the brain to plot. Speech and thought would be fine things if only there were no bad per­sons to mis­use them!”

It would be a mis­take to dis­miss this as an ar­ti­fact of his youth­ful lib­er­al­ism. Marx later de­cried the French gov­ern­ment’s “shame­less in­ter­fer­en­ce with the pop­u­lar rights that had been gained in the March [1848] re­volu­tion — right of as­sembly, free­dom of speech, and of the press,” etc., etc. “With the de­feat of the re­volu­tion of 1848-1849,” he lamen­ted, “the party of the pro­let­ari­at on the Con­tin­ent lost use of the press, free­dom of speech, and the right to as­so­ci­ate, i.e. the leg­al in­stru­ments of party or­gan­iz­a­tion, which it had en­joyed for once dur­ing that short in­ter­val.” Secrecy would be ad­op­ted for the mean­time, but clearly leg­al­ity would have been prefer­able.

Karl Kaut­sky, pri­or to his reneg­acy in Au­gust 1914, main­tained that free­dom of speech and as­so­ci­ation “are of prime im­port­ance to the work­ing class, they are vi­tal con­di­tions of ex­ist­en­ce without which the class can­not de­vel­op. These freedoms are light and air for the pro­let­ari­at, and who­ever re­stricts them, re­jects them, or tries to di­vert the work­ers from the struggle to win them is among the worst en­emies of the pro­let­ari­at, whatever great love for the pro­let­ari­at he may feel or feign.” Ed­die Ford has writ­ten bril­liantly in a tract on “Marx and Free Speech” about the ur­gent ne­ces­sity of this fight.

Rosa Lux­em­burg, Kaut­sky’s staunchest crit­ic with­in the SPD, agreed with him on this point: “Without gen­er­al elec­tions — without free­dom of the press, free­dom of speech, free­dom of as­sembly and the free battle of opin­ions — life in every pub­lic in­sti­tu­tion be­comes a ca­ri­ca­ture of it­self, and bur­eau­cracy rises as the only de­cid­ing factor.” Vladi­mir Len­in, who at times clashed with Lux­em­burg and Kaut­sky over such is­sues as free­dom of speech, echoed these same sen­ti­ments in his 1912 let­ter “Con­cern­ing the Work­ers’ Depu­ties to the Duma and Their De­clar­a­tion”:

[We need] polit­ic­al liberty as badly as man needs air to breathe. Rus­sia can­not live and de­vel­op un­less there is free­dom of the press, as­sembly, as­so­ci­ation, and strikes, and, more than to any oth­er class, these liber­ties are in­dis­pens­able to the pro­let­ari­at, which the lack of rights typ­ic­al of Rus­si­an real­ity binds hand and foot in the fight it must carry on for high­er wages, short­er work­ing hours and bet­ter liv­ing con­di­tions. The op­pres­sion of cap­it­al, the high cost of liv­ing, un­em­ploy­ment in the towns and the im­pov­er­ish­ment of the coun­tryside make it all the more ne­ces­sary for the work­ers to as­so­ciate in uni­ons and fight for their right to live, while lack of polit­ic­al liberty keeps the work­er in the po­s­i­tion of a slave or serf. The work­ers will stop at no sac­ri­fice in their struggle for free­dom, well know­ing that only a rad­ic­al change in all the polit­ic­al con­di­tions of Rus­si­an life, only the fullest pro­vi­sion of the found­a­tions and pil­lars of polit­ic­al liberty, can guar­an­tee the free­dom of their struggle against cap­it­al.

These days Len­in is usu­ally por­trayed as a tire­less en­emy of free speech, and es­pe­cially free­dom of the press. But this por­tray­al is usu­ally based on emer­gency meas­ures taken to shut down re­ac­tion­ary pub­lish­ers spread­ing li­belous ma­ter­i­al and mis­in­form­a­tion amidst a bru­tal civil war. Robe­s­pi­erre and Dzerzh­in­sky were both strong crit­ics of cap­it­al pun­ish­ment, who wanted to see the death pen­alty ab­ol­ished. Nev­er­the­less, neither man would hes­it­ate to use ter­ror in or­der to safe­guard the ad­vances of the re­volu­tion, as a mat­ter of ex­pedi­ence to en­sure the sur­viv­al of their re­spect­ive gov­ern­ments. Mikhail Lif­shitz wrote well on this is­sue in “Marx, Lenin, Hegel, and Goethe on Genius and Freedom of the Press.”

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