[sixties-l] Re: Netanyahu Protest in Berkeley

From: Jeffrey Blankfort (jab@tucradio.org)
Date: 12/12/00

  • Next message: Ron Jacobs: "Re: [sixties-l] Infringing on Free Speech (Berkeley)"

    In what is an otherwise dismal global spectacle, Michael Rossman's
    response has come through like a shining star and made my day. Although
    I deliberately did not mention his name in my post, not having yet seen
    a letter from former FSMers in the Berkeley Daily Planet which
    criticized the protesters, and so was unsure whether or not he had been
    among its signers, I am indeed gratified, in retrospect, to have
    referred to him anonymously, since it has produced this thoughtful and
    magnificent reply on a subject that is as important today as it was in
    the Sixties. Thank you, Michael! 
    Jeff Blankfort
    Michael Rossman wrote:
    > > 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
    > through.
    >         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
    > abused?
    >         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.
    >         Michael
    > ------------------------------
    > End of sixties-l-digest V1 #436
    > *******************************

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