George Ciccariello-Maher’s “off-color” joke about genocide over the holidays has elicited a range of reactions on social media. In the week or so that’s elapsed since he sent out those controversial tweets, several cycles of public opinion have already run their course. Following the initial opprobrium, Ciccariello-Maher was even rebuked by his employers at Drexel University. This in turn led his supporters to gather signatures, urging the administration not to reprimand him further. Some begrudgingly offered their solidarity, more as a matter of principle than out of approval for what he said. While they did not endorse his message, they believed that extramural political speech should be protected. Others enthusiastically leapt to defend the original “white genocide” remark, although Ciccariello-Maher insists he it made in jest, “not only on grounds of academic freedom and free speech, but even more strongly on the basis of its political content.” A few refused to provide him with any backing whatsoever, citing his failure to do likewise after the Charlie Hebdo murders in Paris two years earlier. Luckily, Ciccariello-Maher later revealed that he’d recently received tenure, so the whole affair proved rather a tempest in a teacup. His job was never in serious danger to begin with.
Nevertheless, now that it’s over, it might be worth taking a look at the various responses to this imbroglio. Before surveying all these, however, I might as well lay my cards out on the table: I’m not a “free speech absolutist.” Under extraordinary conditions — say, of revolutionary civil war — some democratic rights will likely have to be suspended. Even under normal circumstances, there are limits related to libel, slander, and inciting a panic. Generally speaking, though, people should be able to say or write whatever the fuck they want. Trotsky had it more or less right in his tract on “Freedom of Press and the Working Class” (1938). “Once at the helm [of the state],” wrote Davidovich, “the proletariat may find itself forced, for a certain time, to take special measures against the bourgeoisie, if the bourgeoisie assumes an attitude of open rebellion against the workers’ state. In that case, restricting freedom of the press goes hand in hand with all the other measures employed in waging a civil war: if you are forced to use artillery and planes against the enemy, you cannot permit this same enemy to maintain his own centers of news and propaganda within the armed camp of the proletariat… Yet in this instance, too, if the special measures are extended until they become an enduring pattern, they in themselves carry the danger of getting out of hand and of the workers’ bureaucracy gaining a political monopoly that would be one of the sources of its degeneration.”
Colin Beckett, Corey Robin, and Richard Seymour
Verso Books published a concise summary of the ordeal by Colin Beckett, which went over the timeline of events. Beckett concluded that “Drexel’s initial response to complaints about Ciccariello-Maher illustrates that unprincipled, PR-conscious administrators are easily manipulated by the slightest hint of controversy,” and implored his readers to “remain vigilant and make it more difficult for universities… to cater to right-wing outrage, real or fake, than police the speech of its employees.” Jacobin reposted Corey Robin’s call to “Defend George Ciccariello-Maher” from his personal blog, a reasonable enough piece, despite its praise for the associate professor’s “excellent work on Venezuela and political theory.” With all due respect to Robin, Ciccariello-Maher’s stuff on Venezuela is lazy tripe. It amounts to little more than rehashing the crudest talking points prepared by the Bolivarian regime. He once granted an interview to Amy Goodman of Democracy Now! in which justify Maduro’s jailing of Leopoldo López, the moderate opposition leader, back in 2015. López was sentenced to fourteen years for fomenting unrest and allegedly plotting to overthrow the government. Guess what evidence was presented as proof of his crime? Yup, that’s right: problematic tweets.