No, Andrew Sullivan, The Left is Not “Intolerant” Towards Free Speech

It’s easy to read Andrew Sullivan’s column today, “The Boston Rally and the Left’s Intolerance of Free Speech,” and ask “what happened?” Once he was the average white liberal’s favorite conservative – someone who came of age under Reagan and Thatcher but turned against his party when George W. Bush led us into Iraq, and proudly endorsed Barack Obama. He came off as affable, if occasionally prickly, on several episodes of Real Time with Bill Maher, and holds the record for the most appearances of any guest on The Colbert Report. But ask those whose skin color affords them a heightened awareness of racial dog whistles that straight white dudes like me haven’t been trained to hear, and they’ll tell you that the real Sullivan, the one with a nasty history of insensitive remarks towards race, has been hiding in plain sight this whole time. 

Sullivan, like many who support a libertarian line on free speech above all else, acquaints himself with strange bedfellows when it comes to those he defends. As editor of The New Republic, he published long excerpts from Charles Murray’s The Bell Curve, a book which famously argues that whites are genetically smarter than blacks and other POC. The editorial team of the magazine threatened to resign over Sullivan’s endorsement of this book, which Bob Herbert of The New York Times described as “a genteel way of calling someone a n*gger.” Sullivan has bent over backwards defending the work throughout the years, claiming that PC culture was “stifling” the discussion of intelligence, while it was really just saying “Hey, maybe you shouldn’t endorse a book that uses junk science to back up racially charged conclusions.”

This past April, Sullivan embarrassed himself once again with a column that excoriated liberals for feeling sorry for Hillary Clinton, insisting that the blame for the rise of Donald Trump be directed entirely at her. The piece was a nasty little bit of victim-blaming that ignored the major factors contributing to her loss (voter suppression, Russian infiltration of the election, and the Comey letter, to name but a few), but if you had the stomach to stick to the end of it, he pivoted towards writing about the United Airlines harassment of David Dao, saying

Asian-Americans, like Jews, are indeed a problem for the “social-justice” brigade. I mean, how on earth have both ethnic groups done so well in such a profoundly racist society? How have bigoted white people allowed these minorities to do so well — even to the point of earning more, on average, than whites? Asian-Americans, for example, have been subject to some of the most brutal oppression, racial hatred, and open discrimination over the years…Yet, today, Asian-Americans are among the most prosperous, well-educated, and successful ethnic groups in America. What gives?

As Jamelle Bouie argued in Slate, this fed into the myth of Asian-Americans as the “model minority,” a concept re-enforced by whites in the midst of the earthquake of the Civil Rights Movement (though it dates back to as early as 1866, in this extremely racist essay by Dr. Josiah Nott.) This myth, with its implicit suggestion that blacks be more like Asians and achieve equality through “hard work” ignored not only the gap between Asian and black poverty, but also, the gap between poverty of different Asian groups (for example, Bhutanese Asians having far less than Japanese Asians.) The myth also conveniently papers over the century of oppression Asian immigrants faced in America, from the Chinese Exclusion Act to the Japanese internment camps. 

Now, Sullivan is taking on the protestors at last week’s rally in Boston. The rally, which was organized by 23-year-old John Medlar, claimed to be about “free speech,” yet attracted some very unsavory characters.  Alt-right Bernie-lover-turned-Trump-supporter Cassandra Fairbanks was originally slated to speak, as was Holocaust denier and Charlottesville speaker Augustus Invictus. Although Fairbanks dropped out voluntarily and Invictus was disinvited, the rally’s attempts to distance itself from the hate witnessed at Charlottesville were unsuccessful, as forty thousand counter-protestors took to the streets against them, forcing the rally to shut down early. Boston has had to deal with an ugly history of racism throughout its existence, and while the counter-protest did not “cure” the city of its problems, it was a huge step forward in forcing it to confront them. 

Sullivan was dismayed by this, believing that the rally was truly concerned with free speech, since it was organized by a libertarian-leaning activist concerned by the Berkeley protests against people like Ann Coulter and Milo Yiannopoulos. He also lamented the blocking of the press from covering the speeches given (an argument also made here in the Columbia Journalism Review) and bashed antifa, a group he claims “despises free speech.” He concluded:

“This is what happens when a society is at war with itself. Nothing matters but which side you’re on. And for a week, the Boston free-speech activists were on the ‘wrong’ side and suffered the consequences. They do, I suppose, have one consolation. If their intent was to prove how parts of the left and Boston’s mayor and police department now oppose freedom of speech if they disagree with it, well, they succeeded beyond their wildest imagination.”

It is clear from this essay that Sullivan has either not confronted his white privilege, or, if he has, he has done an inadequate job of it. Surely someone who covers politics as thoroughly as he has should understand that “free speech” has become a rallying cry for the right as it finds its hateful language unwelcome at American universities and other organizations. And while I stand by Barack Obama’s words to the Rutgers students who removed Condoleezza Rice from their commencement that we should not fear everyone who has opinions different from our own, we should also have no tolerance for hate speech, which is what the protestors at Berkeley stood against.

It’s not that the “snowflake SJWs” of the Left want to block everybody we disagree with. It’s that we’re sick of hearing over and over again that this is just about “censorship.” As Americans, we accept the social contract of living in a society where you will hear things that you find despicable all the time. But, if you choose to traffic in hate speech, then you’d better damn well expect a counter-reaction from those who stand against you. You can, in the most literal reading of the first amendment possible, scream racial invective at the top of your lungs. But when the protests against your words, which will inevitably ensue, target you, you cannot fall back on the tautologies we see over and over again from these people, like, “You’re against freedom of expression!” or “Why won’t you tolerate my intolerance?” We’re done with hearing these excuses, which do nothing to further the conversation, or force the speaker to confront their subconscious biases. 

After the disaster of Charlottesville, the counter-protestors of Boston deserve commendation for their willingness to, in a town which has not fully confronted its past, stand up to those who insist on perpetuating it. They are not snowflakes – snowflakes don’t stand up for their rights by risking arrest, they hide behind their computers and Pepe avatars. And for Andrew Sullivan to misread this crucial issue as being about the left’s supposed intolerance of free speech is a grave mistake at a time where we are uniquely poised to look our systemic prejudice in the face and say, “enough.”

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Jeremy Fassler is a writer and journalist living in Brooklyn, New York.