[sixties-l] Re: Netanyahu Protest in Berkeley

From: Michael Rossman (mrossman@igc.org)
Date: 12/12/00

  • Next message: Jeffrey Blankfort: "Re: [sixties-l] Angry White Trash"

    > Blankfort writes:
    > . . . we have been assailed as violators of "free speech" by everyone
    > from the Anti-Defamation League . . . to veterans of Berkeley Free Speech 
    > Movement (FSM) including one member of this list.
    Sonuvabitch! I post pithy perspectives on the electoral theater to this list,
    and nobody says nothing (save one kind private note.) But one off-balance
    moment with the media, and my persona is neon-signed  as an apostate, a verbal
    jackbooter of virtue! And worse than I apparently deserve, for Jeff has me "
    assail[ing] [him and his friends] as violators of "free speech," whereas all
    that the Burress article (S.F. Chron, see digest #434] actually said is:
    > The Free Speech Movement also used civil disobedience  . . . but Michael Rossman, a 
    > Berkeley writer and member of the movement,  called the Netanyahu protesters'  definition of
    >  civil disobedience [as quoted to him by the reporter]  'illegitimate.'  "That's like saying any time 
    > you do anything against the law for principle, it's civil disobedience," he said.  "That's
    > too broad."
    Hey, folks, I appeal! Isn't this sole quote from me reasonable in itself?
    Hasn't Jeff jumped the gun in classing me with his assailants on basis of how
    the quote was used, rather than reading and thinking carefully? Shouldn't
    someone with so much political experience be used to the way a reporter will
    do a whole interview yet use only  one sentence of quote, out of context, to
    make whatever point he wants? How could he get taken in so easily? How could I?
    I trust I need not put in the cute typographic smiley-faces to indicate rueful
    irony and spare others' feelings. As for my own . . . hey, feel free to kick
    away at them, I deserve no less. Here follows my post on the issue, to the
    small discussion-group of the FSM Archives board. Several had signed a
    statement -- not as the board, but personally as FSM vets -- which was
    promptly published, and which can be read less-inaccurately as attacking the
    protest. As you'll see, I had trouble signing on; yet got took anyway
    independently, by my own confusions. It's a mercy Burress didn't quote more of
    my interview; to justify Jeff's intuitive take more clearly. But I have
    thought the matter through further (if not to finality), and side more with
    Robbie Osman's eloquent take.
    	Michael Rossmajn  <mrossman@igc.org> 
    Dear Friends [on the FSM-A board],
    	I'm sorry to have been absent from this conversation, but I did not want to
    contribute to its confusion with my own fumbling. I had sat down to sign on to
    the text Lynne sent most recently, in full sympathy, but the fussy writer in
    me paused to do a slight re-edit for sake of grace and clarity. I got through
    the first paragraph just fine, and the start of the second. But here's what
    stuck in my craw and choked my sympathy, slightly edited:
    	"Though our movement began as a protest to protect the free-speech rights of
    students involved in the Civil Rights movement, it never limited its defense
    of free speech to those with whom we agreed or to advocates of the causes we
    liked, a position that would have been hypocritical to say the least."
    	Though I admire and share the passion thus expressed, as an honest historian
    I must say that this position is hypocritical to say the least, if not an
    outright lie. Unless one regards the FSM as limited strictly to the active
    conflict in 1964, I think that it must be understood as having finked out on
    defense of free speech in the "FUCK" episode the following spring; and that
    this cannot be dismissed as a trivial betrayal. (Precisely the same may be
    said in regard to its failure to come to Lenny Glazer's defence.) The most
    that can be said honestly, along this line, is that our _vision_ of free
    speech afforded special protection to controversial speech in abstract terms.
    I would like to add, "and that we had no occasion to test this vision in
    defense of speech we didn't like," but the FUCK and Glazer examples choke me.
    	In view of this, I think there is no "FSM position on free speech" to express
    and defend, at least in regard to the current issue, either as FSM-A or as a
    pack of FSM vets self-professedly carrying-on its legacy. I agree with Reggie
    and many, that it was completely inappropriate for FSM-A itself to take a
    position on this issue (though this does not apply to the KPFA issue, for
    reasons I'll be glad to discuss separately if anyone cares.) I agree with
    Lynne, that it is approprate for a pack of FSM vets to make a public statement
    -- but only about a technical point of history, not about the morality and
    politics of the Netanyahu protest. 
    	The technical point is that the protest was not in the spirit and legacy of
    the FSM in either a positive or a negative sense, as some historically-minded
    apologists and critics have claimed. But it's too easy, almost irresistable,
    to slip directly from this into thinking and proclaiming that the protest
    _betrayed_ the FSM's spirit and legacy. I know this because I did so myself
    yesterday, responding to a journalist who called, feeding him most of the
    content of Lynne's draft as if it were my own thought, sputtering in precisely
    the predictable righteousness, as a keeper of sacred memory, that he called on
    me to express -- all the while feeling my anguish at what's happening in
    Israel-Palestine, my abhorrance of Netanyahu, my gratitude forthe protesters'
    presence and potency. I said some of this too to my interviewer, in broken
    interjections, despite my certainty that nonetheless he would use my interview
    simply to spank them; and wound up feeling more used than useful. I could not
    begin to tell him what tentative resistance had crumbled so swiftly within me,
    how my easy slide into collusion with his expectations was greased -- even in
    so apparently independent and cantakerous a person -- by simple herd fear, by
    my barely-grasped unease at how my long-term, smiling comrades might regard me
    were I to stray from the kneejerk rightousness of our faith into apostasy. For
    surely, in the stark logic of righteousness, to think that the protesters were
    not simply wrong in interrupting Netanyahu is to maintain that some kinds of
    speech should not be free. And who could be tolerated or taken seriously among
    us who thinks that?
    	As my wits return, I recognize that I and some others who signed letters, and
    the memory of the FSM itself, have been used as a club to crush voices of
    rightful protest. Is this metaphor indeed extreme? Whatever moral authority we
    bear, as symbols of the FSM and literal keepers of its legacy, has been
    mobilized to help brand the protestors and their protest's purpose as immoral.
    Regardless of the reservations and nuances we tried to incorporate in our
    statements, the effect is this stark. The field of pronouncement was clear of
    competition; there was no one to say, "I speak for the FSM in supporting
    them." To condemn them for "violating Free Speech" was a slam dunk, and we
    just went and did it -- serving thereby as just another element in the wide
    mechanism that has biased and stifled discourse and action on this issue to a
    monstrous and sickening degree.
    	I think this action is over, its small damage done and irreparable, unless
    other media invite us to extend the damage further. No more careful
    consideration of this incident's relation even to free speech, let alone to
    the FSM, is likely to reach public consciousness, save perhaps through some
    recondite, ill-read leftist journal. Even so, I'm still trying to think it
    	Like some others who were drawn to comment, I know too little about what
    actually happened even to presume to judge, yet did so anyway. As ignorance
    leaves me free to imagine, I do so more carefully here, in light of the
    shameful rush to blame Nader for Gore's defeat, ignoring Gore's failings. I
    imagine that the fault for Netanyahu's cancellation -- if fault it be -- lies
    more with the speaker's sponsors, the auditorium's officials, and the police
    than with the protestors. For the latters' responsibility was to make
    themselves heard; but the responsibility to make the speaker heard was
    entirely the former agencies', and they blew it. Thoughtful planning on their
    part could have predicted the distinct possibility of so energetic a protest,
    and could provided the proper forces and readiness to keep it from interfering
    with Netanyahu's speech, save perhaps through scattered audience reaction.
    (The argument that this would impose an unfair burden on sponsors of his
    speech seems specious to me; but I'll come this below.) I imagine they could
    even have mobilized the means to do so after the protesters first slipped
    inside, but chose not to. Either way, to blame the protesters for the
    authorities' decisions and failures in cancelling the speech seems misguided.
    In this historical context, it serves simply to extend the general web of
    repression of "anti-Netanyahu" speech, rather than to affirm anything
    practical that we believe in -- least of all, their right to be heard.
    	As for free speech, is its muzzling really an issue in this case? I think the
    philosophical stance must engage with the practical issue of whether it's the
    mouse or the elephant that needs the megaphone. Many draw back in fastidious
    distaste from this task, preferring the easier way of keeping their principles
    pure. But what alternative is bearable, other than plunging in? I shuddered
    when my otherwise deeply-savvy younger son affirmed devoutly against
    governmental regulation of corporations' TV advertising, on grounds that it
    violated their rights of free speech, and their audiences' rights as well.
    This is what confused application of the faith comes to, among the young. But
    was I really so far from this, when I affirmed piously to my interviewer that
    the free speech rights of his audience as well as of Netanyahu had been
    	The fact is that Netanyahu's viewpoint has been and continues to be widely
    and well expressed, and dominates U.S. discourse and action -- and that
    contrary viewpoints have been systematically stifled. No one was kept from
    access to his views by the lecture's cancellation, save in the most transient
    sense -- for in effect, one can hardly escape from reading them over and over
    in the endless coverage of this scene, from the N.Y. Times' editorials on
    down. In such a circumstance, it seems to me, my moral responsibility to
    ensure that Netanyahu can be heard on some particular occasion fades away. _He
    doesn't need my help.._  The powerful have ample means to deliver their
    messages, means which also stifle opposing messages and discourse itself; they
    do not _need_ the protection of the First Amendment, being well-fortified by
    law in practical regards. In the face of this, to keep the "pure" faith one
    must say, "Yet even so, the _right_ of the powerful to speak and dominate
    through speech must be supported in each instance, for on such principled,
    unequivocal support depends the principled and unequivocal defense of the
    right of each unpowerful speaker to speak and be heard." Though this hangs
    together as a sentence and a stance, I think its logical coherence -- as well
    as its apparant moral and philosophical integrity -- is an illusion that
    dissolves under closer examination, though I forbear to pursue this here.
    	I find myself led too readily to think of Netanyahu as a "controversial"
    speaker, who by this designation might merit protection in the same sense that
    I might if I spoke against him. That I hate his views and that the issue is so
    agonizing and public does not make him "controversial" in the same sense as
    the protestors. Indeed, the problem of discourse is that the controversy
    itself is suppressed; and that Netanyahu is an active agent in its suppression
    through his appearances here as in action at home, rather than a free agent
    simply contributing to public dialogue, in the classical sense of the First Amendment.
    	Such analysis suggests a modified free speech stance, which I summarize
    crudely here, as the hour is late. The First Amendment was designed not to
    enable the powerful to deliver their messages unopposed, but to enable the
    unpowerful to be heard against this. When it's used for the former purpose, it
    subverts the latter; and by this betrays itself. As a principled and practical
    matter, what must be defended is the right of the powerful to speak in forums
    of genuine discourse, in which opposing viewpoints are heard and engaged -- as
    in the liberal idea of J.S. Mill, that resonated through the framing of the
    Amendment and infected us in our youth. Beyond and failing this, I have no
    particular respect for their abstract "right" to speak unopposed; and indeed
    find this very concept as incoherent as the "right" of the manor lord to
    vassals' daughters, since in general it is an exercise not of "right" but
    simply of power. 
    	To characterize vociferous interruption of a malign sermon perpetuating
    national barbarity as "interference with free speech," rather than as its
    tumultuous expression, is too much for me to stomach; I am ashamed that I did
    so. I am surprised also to recognize how much more willing and less conflicted
    I would be in arguing and demonstrating for the right of an American Nazi to
    speak in public, as compared to Netanyahu's "right." Since they seem as moral
    twins to me, the contrast is instructive and clear: The First Amendment and
    the idea of free speech were meant to protect the Nazi and me, not Netanyahu.
    At the moment, I'm sorry I wasn't there yelling.

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