Free Speech spectacles are civic-religious rituals in service of colonial civilization

“Imperialism is becoming everyday less and less the creed of a party and more and more the faith of a nation.” –Lord Curzon, 1898, governor general and viceroy of India

“‘The power that dominates the United States’ [is] unwilling to tolerate the slightest suggestion of culpability for the crimes that it has perpetrated across the globe. At the height of the ideological society lies the conviction of a moral mission, even a divine destiny, authorizing its almost inadvertent drive towards global domination.” -Hamid Dabashi

Colonialism and imperialism, in their classical or contemporary guises, have many ways of appearing palatable, even decent. Those tropes are easy to identify, because they’ve been reliably deployed for hundreds of years without changing. First, Empire targets a group of people, usually because the population sits on top of great territory or resources, then reduces them to an undifferentiated mass (“Muslims,” for instance). They’re given essential characteristics in order to obscure the aggression against them (“Why are Muslims so angry?”), and imbecilic, power-serving bromides are proffered as an explanation for the current historical moment (“They must hate us for our freedom”). One of the central characteristics, attributed to all targeted groups, is an inherent primitiveness, a lack of civilized values if not civilization itself (“They don’t understand our noble, enlightened Free Speech.”)

It’s that last point, about how progressive values are invoked in the service of imperialism, that makes the fact that Charlie Hebdo is liberal a non-substantive point. It’s been said that the magazine antagonized France’s neo-fascists and advocated for immigrant rights, but those aren’t the ideas being mined from this week’s events. In the English-speaking media, there’s been a back-and-forth about how the more shocking images in Charlie Hebdo are meant to be received. However, even defenses of the magazine from charges of racism concede that the magazine itself (and “the French satire tradition” as a whole) has often made a target of Muslims. Sure, Charlie Hebdo mocked the Pope—if it frequently dehumanized a marginalized group in the Empire’s sights as though they’re as strong as one of the world’s most powerful men, then it’s easy to see how that’s useful to power.

While Charlie‘s cartoonists may have claimed that they targeted Islam’s “extremists,” this project fits firmly in the liberal wing of imperialism. According to Professor Deepa Kumar, a key characteristic of liberal Islamophobia is “the recognition that there are ‘good Muslims’ with whom diplomatic relations can be forged.” As opposed to Islamophobia’s “troglodyte version, which is just blatant,” Kumar explains, “there are very complex, sophisticated, and liberal forms,” which make allowances for two types of Muslims: extremist/fundamentalist/terrorist “bad” ones, and “good Muslims, which is people who actually support what the U.S. is trying to do, and nothing in the middle.” According to Vox, separating “bad” Muslims from “good” ones is exactly what Charlie‘s editors claimed to be doing: “The magazine’s own editors have said…its lampooning of radical Islam is aimed at separating out radicalism from mainstream Islam, which is ultimately a service in favor of Islam.” For the sake of progress, Charlie was circulating Arab caricatures to save Islam from itself.

Liberal ideas of progress aren’t opposed to racism and colonialism, nor are they just complementary, but essential to those projects of domination. This has been the case since at least the 18th century—empires have always presented conquest as gifting reason and pluralism to backwards people. Plenty of today’s most strident anti-Muslim bigots, like the New Atheist luminaries, identify as liberals defending the Enlightenment tradition, and they sound identical to both colonial proconsuls and Anders Breivik. Liberalism’s role in Empire is why John Kerry sounds identical to George Bush on the question of why the terrorists hate us (it’s our freedom). France offered pluralist reasons for banning both the wearing of hijab and pro-Palestinian demonstrations last summer during Operation Protective Edge.

Newsweek Muslim RageWithin the construct of liberal imperialism, our advanced values are presented as a decisive fault line marking “Western” societies from other, contradistinct civilizations. Spectacles surrounding “Free Speech” are crucial moments for the manufacturing the borders of Empire’s imagined community and creating the Other. These events—often centered on racist cartoons and the consumption of pork—are wrapped up with a panoply of innocuous political stances and capitalist consumer choices “that trigger a warm feeling of self-recognition and superiority among cosmopolitans,” in the words of Charles Hirschkind and Saba Mahmood. After 9/11, Salman Rushdie offered that “to prove [the fundamentalist] wrong, we must agree on what matters: bacon sandwiches, disagreement, cutting-edge fashion, movies, [and] freedom of thought,” along with other basic physical and emotional needs that “the fundamentalist” doesn’t share with humanity, like water and love. This is part of constructing the “assumption of collective Muslim guilt [which] is a common staple of the American mass media,” as Hamid Dabashi recounts in Brown Skin, White Masks. “A particular paragon of twisted reasoning is the New York Times columnist Tom Friedman, who wondered why Muslims around the globe (not just Pakistanis) did not ‘take to the streets to protest the mass murders of real people?’ Why would they do so when their Prophet is caricatured in Danish newspapers, but stay home when real human beings had been murdered?”

One of the liberal mantras that’s been repeated a lot since the 2006 Jyllands-Posten event involves depictions of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH…how’s that for edgy speech?). Liberals are wont to shake their heads and say that they just don’t understand how Muslims can be so attached to a mere image. The emphasis on a picture is another invocation of the enlightened status of the speaker and their membership in “Western civilization,” versus the inscrutability of a group so atavistic and primitive that they’re made furious by a cartoon of their Holy Prophet. Like every aspect of these spectacles, in which the mob condemns and repudiates and declares what the Bad Men did “unthinkable,” this is meant to delineate civilization against barbarism—the logic that undergirds colonialism.

It’s strange hearing liberals repudiate blind religious totemism during these spectacles, because a reliable constant is the invocation of “Free Speech” like some sort of fetish-object. Free Speech is a value about which “we” must be absolute, since it protects “our” rights like a guardian angel. Furthermore, the story is that Free Speech is something that actually exists, rather than being a socially transmitted, power-serving fiction. In reality, Free Speech spectacles are liturgies for a secular religion—what Dabashi calls “the ideological society”— one that’s driven by domination and demands as much blind obedience as any other faith.

Pork-wrapped ammunition marketed for murdering Muslims.

Pork-wrapped ammunition marketed for murdering Muslims.

The treatment of Muslims, often the targets of Charlie Hebdo’s dehumanizing cartoons and already the targets of racist reprisals, offers an object lesson in the illusory nature of free speech. The Middle East has for centuries been a target of the North Atlantic powers, kicking into overdrive after 9/11. The spectacle surrounding the CIA torture report was a whole six weeks ago, but one of the facts it reiterated was that 100% of the program’s victims were Muslim, because Muslims are one of the primary targets of state and state-sanctioned violence. Over a million Muslims have been killed, with countless more displaced and immiserated, by the US and NATO in only the last quarter-century. “All the power, all the power in the world is stacked against the victims of empire, and undisentanglable from this is the lack of power to make their case in defense,” writes “Sassy Sourstein” in a post worth reading in full.

However, Muslims aren’t only being slaughtered, tortured, driven from their homes, and harassed by racists. They’re also not entitled to the Free Speech rights that we’re told are of the utmost civilizational importance. In the United States, Muslims have been both murdered and imprisoned for exercising speaking too freely. Detroit Imam Luqman Abdullah was executed by the FBI for having “belligerent” views towards American foreign policy. As Sassy said, “Tarek Mehanna translated al-Qaeda materials and is in jail for 17 years. Anwar al-Awlaki was assassinated by drone in Yemen for the crime of saying mean things about America on YouTube. For good measure, his 16-year-old son was also evaporated. Javed Iqbal got 5 years in prison for broadcasting Hezbollah’s TV station inside the US.” Muslims are almost 75% of the inmates in America’s “Communications Management Units,” extraordinarily restrictive prison units designed to minimize contact with the outside world.

The NYPD set up their notorious demographics unit for the purpose of spying on Muslims throughout the tri-state area, which monitored everything from Lebanese restaurants to elementary schools. Surveillance isn’t neutral—as Evan Tucker says, “it is through the very act of surveillance that crime is produced.” There’s nothing more chilling to freedom of speech than knowing you’re being watched by an omnipotent state that’s aching to deport you or put an orange jumpsuit and a black hood on you. Targeted populations understand that free speech is a myth, which is why they need to put up signs like this to protect themselves:

muslim students

From “Mapping Muslims

Muslims are prohibited from speaking freely on political matters in very real ways (except to “condemn extremism” in their community). Arrayed against them is not only contemporary state power, but centuries of colonialist representations—the exact same kind now being widely shared in the name of free speech. In all the insipid, saccharine, idiotic, and unoriginal cartoons mourning the attack, a common theme was “Islamic” extremism represented as a black-robed man wielding a scimitar. This image is legible to the average reader, despite the fact that the attackers carried Kalashnikovs, because it’s a centuries-old representation of Muslim savagery. The idea that “speech needs to be countered with more and better speech” starts to sputter given that these ideas have had a 300-year head start over “better speech.” Academics, historians, and critical theorists have written billions of words substantively deconstructing the racist and colonialist roots of Orientalist imagery—“better” speech by any definition: rigorous scholarship backed up by historical evidence. Yet here we are, in 2015, and cartoonists still deploy the image of a bearded fanatic wielding a sword. How is “better speech” supposed to win? Which speech enjoys a prominent and privileged platform? Which is more likely to be seen by the average person in a grocery store checkout line: an Edward Said book, or a history-erasing, Muslim-bashing Newsweek cover?

Scimitar cartoonsSince Free Speech doesn’t exist for Empire’s targets, for whose benefit is it relentlessly and mindlessly invoked? The object is evidently to better society by circulating “controversial” or “offensive” content:

Greenwald’s post tries to make a point about Free Speech by reprinting some of Charlie’s anti-Black and anti-Muslim cartoons and including some additional anti-Semitic ones (and merely anti-Zionist ones. Thanks, Glenn). However, even choosing to reprint anti-Semitic cartoons shows how hollow the idea of “equal opportunity offense” is. Jews are another group that’s long been the target for white European racism, subject to the exact same racist tropes as Muslims.

Offending privileged, establishment-supporting North Americans and Europeans would take totally different images. The Intercept could’ve printed images mocking the victims of the Boston bombing, or murdered British soldier Lee Rigby, or made fun of Corporal Nathan Cirillo, shot last autumn at Canada’s war memorial. Nothing would more prove that no boundary is sacred than sharing PDFs of Inspire, al Qaeda’s magazine. Its alleged author, Samir Khan, was vaporized via drone for writing it, and possessing it was adduced as proof of Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s guilt. Obviously this is a truly controversial and inflammatory piece of speech, and should thus be embraced and shared freely as a mark of noble bravery, nay, as an existential imperative.

Of course, no one would ever do this, because Free Speech isn’t about offending the highest number of people (and the US government would throw them in prison on a material support charge). The French banned a billboard depicting Christ as a woman, and Charlie Hebdo fired an employee over charges of anti-Semitism, so obviously there are plenty of boundaries that remain firm.

So Free Speech, as it’s invoked in these spectacles, doesn’t mean open intellectual inquiry, isn’t intended to offend the majority, and doesn’t exist for marginalized groups or left-wing challenges to the status quo. We got a prelude to this spectacle last month during a similar hysterical free speech event, surrounding a dick-joke movie. That time, Free Speech was about a multi-billion dollar corporation’s right to profit from a movie depicting the murder of a head of state, targeted as part of the “Axis of Evil.” Now, the spectacle surrounds a magazine that proudly identified itself as an antagonist of Muslims, at a time when Muslims are a prime target of Western violence. In order to sanctify the “noble” martyrdom of Charlie Hebdo’s cartoonists, it’s a moral duty for all good westerners to disseminate more racist cartoons:

The underlying logic of sharing Muhammad cartoons is that A) Muslims are made irrationally angry by seeing pictures, B) antagonizing “bad” Muslims is a worthwhile project, and C) “good” Muslims should understand that spreading hook-nosed Arab caricatures is a noble liberal undertaking. Just like liberal Islamophobia only allows for “good” Muslims who support America unswervingly and “bad” ones who don’t, there’s no space in this binary for Muslims who don’t support anti-Muslim caricatures but repudiate “extremism.” It’s similar to the aggression of expecting a woman to laugh at misogyny, lest she be branded a killjoy and a harridan. These cartoons, though, aren’t just the mark of good humor, but presented as the site of a civilizational cleavage, a dividing line between the enlightened and the despotic.

An undertaking that defied the binary logic of imperialism could be highlighting the rich, millennia-long traditions of humor in the Middle East, North Africa, and South Asia. Of course, that would be beyond the scope of an entire book, since Islam isn’t heterogenous or young enough about which to make such sweeping statements. Similarly, a more worthwhile journalistic project could be illuminating the links between NATO and its Gulf allies that fund and arm weaponized takfiri extremism. Speech that defies the logic of imperialism doesn’t reify establishment conceptions of “civilization,” nor demand that targeted ethnic groups applaud their own dehumanization.

Demands for free speech, as they’ve gone down in the Charlie Hebdo and The Interview spectacles comfort the logics of Empire, rather than challenge them. Of course, participants don’t need to identify as liberal imperialists or Islamophobes to aid in this project. Given how wide a range of public figures are participating in this event, it’s likely that huge numbers would reject these classifications. However, there are centuries-old discourses at work, which are powered by a lot of ideas that people take for granted. Ideas about belonging to a more-advanced “us” necessarily involve less-advanced outside threats. It’s possible for the state to co-opt all sorts of well-intentioned projects—acceding to a campaign like this is tailor-made to serve power.

The implied penalty for not playing by the Empire’s rules is ugly. Liberal imperialism may be less openly bellicose than to agitate for an apocalyptic confrontation between “Islam” and “the West,” but it’s still the Empire. In concrete terms, the difference is someone on Fox calling for Muslims to be murdered versus someone on NPR calling for “some” Muslims to be murdered.

Free Speech as some often-invoked construct may be a natural site for imperialism and denigrating the Other. Tarzie, in a couple posts that have proven prescient and invaluable for cutting through the obscurantism of these spectacles, points to how this could happen if Free Speech absolutism always supports supremacy:

[C]ivil libertarians furnish no empirical evidence of a direct relationship between the protection of hate speech and a wider berth for other forms of expression, particularly that of marginalized, oppressed and colonized people. We’re expected to simply take this relationship for granted, even though the historical record, in the United States at least, suggests that hate speech is actually privileged relative to other forms of contested speech, which is what any analytical person would predict when recognizing that hate speech is the weaponized language of dominant classes. When civil libertarians posit hate speech as the vanguard of free speech, rather than an instrument for maintaining the status quo and suppressing the expression of those who contest it, they are either ignorant of the historical record or simply lying.

I do not find the question…of how one makes an ethical or legal distinction between hate speech and other forms of inflammatory speech any more perplexing than the question of who dominates in a society and who does not. [Emphasis added]

Supremacist speech—white supremacist, misogynistic, heterosexist, etc.—occupies a privileged position in society. It’s why neo-Nazis linked to Cliven Bundy can murder 2 cops in Las Vegas and it’s barely news, while a black man murdering 2 cops in New York leads to a “blue coup” in America’s biggest city. “The national security state’s legitimacy is based on (white) mass fear and loathing of the Other, in whose pursuit all civil liberties are extraneous,” according to Glen Ford of Black Agenda Report. “Such dark energies are not conjured out of thin air, but mined from the deep reservoirs of America’s racial history. Hate sits like a thermal resource to be tapped and redirected at the whim of those in power.” It’s not hard to see that France harnesses the same “dark energies” for the same ends. France has maintained a militarized sphere of influence in West Africa since the days of colonization, complete with a colonial taxation system. In the last few years, France has bombed Mali, Libya, and Iraq. That same French government just gave Charlie Hebdo $1.2 million, so regardless of what good politics the magazine has espoused in the past, the state perceives this spectacle as useful, and wants to overtly align themselves with the #JeSuisCharlie cause.

“What I want more than anything is a smarter conversation about [free speech],” Tarzie says in another post, “where the participants actually seem to know things, like that historically hate speech has occupied a privileged place relative to radical speech.”

In the US, the state is currently using both militarized means and less visible counterinsurgency tactics to crush incipient Black liberation movements. The “Green Scare” campaign against environmental and animal-rights activists has “redefined not only free speech,” but has also redefined direct action. Rushdie linking a rejection of swine-eating to terrorism isn’t some throwaway comment—the FBI likewise sees veganism as the mark of a subversive, if not yet a clear-and-present danger to national security. None of the Western democracies sit back and tolerate threats to their power from the left, either. In Spain earlier last year, Alba González Camacho was sentenced to a year in prison for a tweet expressing support for banned Maoist group GRAPO. There was no #YoSoyAlba hashtag—and there was definitely no #YoSoyGRAPO hashtag, since exercising your free speech rights in support of GRAPO will get you thrown in fucking prison. 10 months after González Camacho’s sentencing, Spain passed a draconian set of anti-speech laws designed to squash dissent in the face of popular anti-austerity resistance. If liberals want to see a slippery slope in action, there’s usually a steep one right behind an act of radical speech.

The #JeSuisCharlie event substantiates the idea that Free Speech, as it’s used by the powerful, is a coded call for a type of supremacy. Why else would the Charlie cartoons that must be shared be the ones even its ardent liberals defenders agree are racist, xenophobic, and “punching-down?” Arthur Silber has pointed out that wrapping the state’s monopoly on total force in anodyne concepts like “the law” configures these things in the public imagination as a “Platonic Form plucked from the skies by the Pure in Heart,” something supernatural that floats above mere human whims. However, Silber reminds us that “Laws are written by men, men who have particular interests, particular constituencies, particular donors, and particular friends. (The same is now true of women as well, of course. But for most of our history, it was men and only men. Straight, white men, to be precise) Laws are the particular means by which the state implements and executes its vast powers.”

***

However, it’s not enough for people to repeat power-serving fictions about Free Speech in the service of domination. These stories are the corpus of the ideological society’s “divine destiny,” in Dabashi’s words. Like any faith, the religion of power has mechanisms for enforcing in-group unity. Accompanying these fairy tales are demands for active participation. If spreading marginalizing cartoons is imperative for the very existence of civilization, then anyone who refuses to join the mob is likewise a threat to civilization itself. Liberals may be less overtly thuggish than reactionaries, but at work were similar logics of expulsion as a punishment for treachery. During the initial #JeSuisCharlie response, anyone of prominence who wouldn’t spread Charlie’s anti-Muslim cartoons was branded a coward:

The word capitulation in the last tweet explicitly invokes warfare because these “cowards” are being shamed for desertion during a war—a construct that ports liberals into Samuel Huntington’s imperialist clash-of-civilizations framework. Reactionaries share dehumanizing cartoons about Muslims because they fantasize openly about exterminating the Muslim Other with violence. Liberals share dehumanizing cartoons because to do so is a noble expression of Enlightenment values.

The treatment of any non-participant as a coward and a traitor has the (intended) effect of not only shoring up boundaries and mandating in-group loyalty, but in rendering dissent beyond the pale. Left celebrities are even repeating the transparently inane call, typically associated with the right, to not “politicize this tragedy.” The discourse around Charlie Hebdo is that this event is of primary concern to any decent person, and any deviation is pathological. Nearly every thinkpiece around the event, with few exceptions, contains the same reflexive denunciations, identical recapitulations of the idea that the public must care about this event in the strongest possible terms. Even most ostensibly critical pieces genuflect to the core status quo moral principles. As one writer put it, “everyone…is asserting that there are no justifications for this, that the attacks are abhorrent, that free speech must be defended,” and anyone who doesn’t repeat these ideas “come[s] from the looniest fringes.”

Regardless of one’s feelings, they must accept and repeat this spectacle’s power-serving logic, and only a lunatic would do otherwise. This is marginalization at its purest. As Patrick Higgins wrote, “Since the ruling class produces notions of desirability, it defines belonging, or at least the sense of belonging. This means that it also maintains methods for ostracizing. The most common techniques for maintaining group cohesion and for humiliating dissenters using tried-and-true ad hominem attacks…include[s] diagnoses of pathology.” The reflexive denunciations are how social acceptance is marshaled—the mob’s premise is established without interrogation and presented as natural, and anyone who questions it is, by definition, insane.

The problem with something as seemingly simple as a condemnation is that human beings have finite mental capacities, and that means a limited amount of things they can care about. No part of a spectacle like this is neutral. The idea that people must speak out to condemn, repudiate, and mourn this event—in order to remain a respectable member of the tribe—is itself a value judgment, smuggling normative moral distinctions into a seemingly neutral act. Establishment organs direct the public’s attention where it is going to best serve their interests.

No one demanded that the public care about Tareq Ayyoub, a Palestinian journalist murdered by the US in Iraq, or any of the hundreds of journalists killed by the American invasion. No one is branded a coward if the don’t share the story of Sami al-Hajj, held by the US and tortured for 6 years in Guantánamo because he worked for Al Jazeera. It’s not a civilizational imperative, the mark of any decent human being, to share news about the dozens of journalists routinely killed by Israel. This public spectacle has been manufactured because Charlie Hebdo’s racist work—and the way that the artists died— serves an imperial project. Like any discussion, it’s being conducted in prominent places because it’s useful to power.

***

For an event supposedly involving rationality and freedom, very little of the discussion has transpired rationally. There’s no evidence that the free West affords universal free speech rights, and the available facts indicate that these spectacles serve only the powerful in the furtherance of their supremacy. The ritual demands subordination of one’s moral autonomy before the will of the mob through the rote repetition of thought-terminating clichés. There is the veneration of martyrs. Creepiest of all, there’s a demand for not just ideological uniformity but moral performance, on pain of being labeled derelict in the defense of civilization against savage hordes that would rend it asunder. All these are elements more of a religion than a rational worldview, precisely because that’s what this is. Free speech absolutism as liberals practice it looks a lot like another civic religion: militarism.

In a very real and direct way, militarism is America’s secular faith. The military is an institution that Americans must treat as sacrosanct, to which all Americans must demonstrate fealty and against whose holy precepts they dare not speak ill. America’s civic religion is sanctified the same way any other religion is, with shared rituals, beliefs, prayers, and boundaries. The commanding displays by the US military before sporting events are, in the words of historian Andrew Bacevich, “ballpark liturgies,” where the civic religion is practiced in sacrosanct national spaces.

martyrdomLike any religion, militarism has a culture of martyrdom, enacted by frequent public encomia. When Lone Survivor came out, a lot of critics pointed out the film’s similarity to The Passion of the Christ. None made the connection that a film about a disastrous Navy SEAL raid could only make sense as a passion play because soldiers are configured as Americans’ secular saviors. This is true in a literal sense—Americans are constantly reminded to thank The Troops for “our freedom,” a vaguely defined value that functions as a secular salvation. The death of a soldier has quasi-mystical implications: as Colin Powell wrote, “each life given in the name of liberty is a life that has not been lost in vain.” A soldier’s death is simultaneously a tragedy and an event that retroactively sanctifies everything that came before it, just like the Charlie Hebdo staff.

This religion is governed by a demand for ideological purity. In 2012, a Massachusetts woman lost her job over a picture she posted on Facebook. Lindsey Stone flipped the bird next to a sign at Arlington National Cemetery that says “Silence and Respect,” and in response, thousands of people joined a Facebook group dedicated to getting Stone and the woman who took the picture fired. The sort of people who have a Muhammad cartoon as their Facebook photo right now drop the “equal opportunity offender” shtick as soon as a stranger dares joke at the expense of the US military.

Anyone who fails to bow and scrape before American militarism is subject to recrimination. Chris Hayes once mildly questioned the practice of axiomatically labeling The Troops heroes, before doing a quick 180 and issuing a boot-licking apology. Even CNN’s resident all-American troop-fucker Jake Tapper got a torrent of abuse for insufficient reverence to military martyrs. These are almost-literal witch hunts, because a religious precept has been transgressed, requiring penitence. The punishments are campaigns of pressureharassmentdeath threats, and accusations of treason. Treason is a crime with a very limited statutory definition and an extraordinarily broad social application. In American parlance, it’s used synonymously with apostasy. An apostate has renounced their place in the community for lack of faith, and must be punished and expelled from the group. Similarly, American “traitors” are sent death threats and told to go live in a Muslim country or be murdered anytime they object to Hollywood’s latest valorization of some corn-fed cryptofascist.

***

Tellingly, the most irrational qualities attributed to Muslims are ones that are central to America’s civic religion. The ideas that Muslims have a fetish for martyrdom, a culture of domination, intolerance for apostates, and an irrational attachment to their religious totems—all of these apply to the ideologies of conquest embedded in Western secular faith.

There is no culture of martyrdom stronger than the one venerating dead soldiers of the US and UK. There is no culture of domination more powerful than capitalism, and the imperialism that is its highest stage. There is no one more intolerant towards apostates than those who believe in defending an imperialist idea of “Western civilization.” There is no one more irrationally attached to make-believe trifles than those who invoke the West’s goodness in the face of non-Western savagery.

Free speech absolutism and militarism share in the fact that both are discourses of domination. Both are devoted to protecting the imperatives of the conqueror. The difference is that free speech absolutism is cloaked in liberal enlightenment language of pluralism, expression, and the common good; where militarism is martial, apocalyptic, and nakedly aggressive. Both share the same core, and thus have porous borders between the two—reactionaries invoking intellectual inquiry and liberals who are bloodthirsty militarists. Free speech absolutism is the “Reform” version and militarism is the “Orthodox” incarnation of the same faith.

However, both exist to propitiate the same God. Imperial logics of domination were elevated to the status of secular faith because it’s useful to power. At the risk of getting too r/Atheism, these ideas were made religion the same way any other belief system is. They were elevated and mystified by gatekeepers who said that the ideas resided outside the realm of discussion. Boundaries were instituted and enforced. Dissent is discouraged through mechanisms of social ostracism and belonging.

There is a genuine and severe threat to free speech in Western societies. One of the most overt threats to free speech is North Atlantic imperialism, the sort that killed 16 employees of Radio Television Serbia on the grounds that they were “propagandists”—an event which hundreds of American journalists cheered on. However, there are countless other, less visible, top-down threats to free speech: resurgent fascism funded by predatory oligarchs, America’s domestic counterinsurgency strategy, the War on Terror, mass incarceration. None of these free speech threats will ever be the cause célèbre of world leaders and media celebrities, because these are the ruling class’s weapons against popular resistance.

The United States is the enforcer of an extraordinarily cruel capitalist order and the world’s greatest exporter of violence. Salting the earth is thought of as an Old Testament punishment, a vestige of humankind’s brutal past and the domain of history’s cruelest villains. However, the United States “salted the earth” in Fallujah, with toxic chemicals and radioactive waste, during its war on Iraq. The result is “worse than Hiroshima.” Imperialism belies the myth of progress. What person could believe that these are the Good Guys—much less the vanguard of enlightenment values? The only way to get people to believe something so counterfactual is to place the underlying logics outside the realm of rational contestation, elevated to the status of secular faith.

h/t to Rancids Tarzie and Sassy for their pieces, Phil Greaves for tweeting about journalist deaths in Iraq

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6 thoughts on “Free Speech spectacles are civic-religious rituals in service of colonial civilization

  1. Pingback: No wonder it made $100m last weekend: “American Sniper” is a unique hybrid of right-wing and liberal pro-war movies | Full Spectrum Cromulence

  2. Thank you for this piece, which I found to be deft and masterful, and thanks as well for the plethora of links – without them (and the links in other posts) I would never have heard of Sami al Hajj, Greg Thomas, etc. It is a thoroughly unsurprising shame that a blog as well written, cutting, and challenging as this has only one other real comment for such a post.

    • Thanks for visiting, I’m glad that you found the piece illuminating and resource-rich. I appreciate your very kind feedback, too–I write because I love to, but hearing such kind words is an added joy.

  3. Pingback: Cartoonists: the foot soldiers of “democracy” | Popaganda

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