interesting times

The Boston Rally Exposed the Left’s Intolerance of Free Speech

Protesters and police at the Boston Free Speech rally on August 19, 2017. Photo: Salwan Georges/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Here’s a question: At last Saturday’s massive rally against “hate” in Boston, what were 30,000 or so people actually protesting? The event in question was not organized by a neo-Nazi group, the KKK, or any other recognized hate group, but by an outfit called the Boston Free Speech Coalition. Its Facebook page claims they are “a coalition of libertarians, progressives, conservatives, and independents” aiming to “peaceably engage in open dialogue about the threats to, and importance of, free speech and civil liberties.” In the days before, the organizer, 23-year-old John Medlar, had insisted that “contrary to a lot of the rumors out there, the purpose of the rally is to denounce the kind of political violence that we have seen, a sort of rising tide throughout the country and particularly most recently in Charlottesville.” He said his group is small and young. At 23, he says he is the oldest.

If you want to check him out some more, here’s an interview he gave to the radio station WGBH: “I describe myself as a Libertarian, so I’m very much a small government guy. I think that it’s … I’ve also had a very Catholic upbringing, so my parents raised me to put a very strongly … emphasis on personal responsibility and virtues. And I think that you can’t have virtue when, you know, the government is compelling you to do things. I think society is better off when individuals take it upon themselves to build themselves up and to be the best possible people that they can be rather than, you know, that and shirking those responsibilities and leaving it to government bureaucrats who are less efficient at everything.” Not exactly elegant, but you get the drift.

And if you were ever a young libertarian and conservative (that would be me), you’d recognize these people pretty quickly. Young, over-their-heads, self-described free-speech “absolutionists,” [sic] they’ve read a little too much Ayn Rand, and tend toward easy, abstract extremism and a lot of naïvete. And so it doesn’t completely surprise me that their original speaker list did indeed include far-rightists, eager to use their platform: anti-feminist flame-thrower Gavin McInnes; Augustus Invictus, a young eugenicist with a fascist haircut who has apparently engaged in goat sacrifice; Joe Biggs, an Infowars nut behind “Pizzagate”; and one genuine New Zealand white nationalist, Kyle Chapman. But the group had always insisted they were open to far-leftists as well, and openly invited anyone to speak.

One who signed up was Rinaldo Del Gallo, a Bernie Sanders supporter, who is a candidate for the Massachusetts State Senate, and favors, among other things, single-payer health care, GMO labeling, and free college tuition. In the end, he didn’t speak. The police told him he was not on their speaker list and when he demanded to be allowed in, antifa activists surrounded him menacingly, yelling “White trash!” “I thought I was going to be lynched,” he told the Boston Herald. Another, Samson Racioppi, a young congressional candidate, wanted to use the occasion to denounce hate, neo-Nazis, the KKK, et al. He didn’t make it to the podium either because the crowd was too large to get through, he said.

Someone who actually spoke was Deaconess Anne Armstrong of the “Healing Church,” a cannabis-centered religious group which recently petitioned to conduct a service in a chapel at Washington’s Catholic Basilica, as long as it had comfy chairs. (She was seen blowing weed smoke out of a shofar before the event.) Another speaker was an Indian immigrant, Shiva Ayyadurai, who is a Republican candidate running against Elizabeth Warren, and who claims to have invented email. In one photo of his speech, he was surrounded by posters saying “Black Lives DO Matter,” and railing against Monsanto. He says he wants to unite all races against the Establishment.

What about the handful of their supporters? The Daily Beast reported that they were “mostly young men from Massachusetts, in their teens and early 20s, as well as several young men of color, and a few women.” The one thing, it seems, that most of them agreed on was drug legalization. Somehow, I’m not surprised.

What did they say? We still don’t know, and may never know. And that’s what bugs me. The reason is that Boston’s mayor and police department actually banned reporters and members of the public from being close enough to the rally to hear it (and the group couldn’t even afford a sound system). The reason was safety, but it’s hard to believe that a few reporters — let’s say, just one — couldn’t have been allowed close enough to hear the speeches and let us know what was in them. If an event is in a public space, and is advertised as a “free speech” rally, doesn’t the press have a right to access? In an interview, the mayor, Marty Walsh, shrugged: “Why give attention to people spewing hate?” In another: “You can have your free speech all day long, but let’s not speak about hate, bigotry, and racism.” The Boston police commissioner was more explicit: “I’m not going to listen to people who come in here and want to talk about hate. And you know what? If [reporters and others] didn’t get in, that’s a good thing because their message isn’t what we want to hear.” As it was, the scheduled two-hour event lasted less than 50 minutes, none of the far-rightists spoke, and the few speakers were rushed out in vans for their safety.

Who cares who they were, if the point was to denounce the hatred displayed in Charlottesville? Well, I do. I find it creepy that a crowd of 30,000, a city government, and a police force effectively shut down an event that was designed to defend free speech! I find it even creepier that masked members of the violent antifa group, who openly despise free speech, mixed openly and easily with the crowd and delighted in disrupting the event, while hurling rocks and bottles of urine at the police.

Mercifully, a few others have weighed in. WBUR reporter Bruce Gellerman recalled Frederick Douglass’s “Plea for Free Speech,” where Douglass took on Boston’s mayor and police department for suppressing an abolitionist rally. There is a right to speak, Douglass said, but “equally clear is the right to hear.” Veteran free-speech advocate Harvey Silverglate also wrote a stirring piece: “Boston shortchanged itself and the nation last weekend when, in effect, it gamed the First Amendment.”

As Boston, an allegedly liberal city, undoubtedly did. It seems to me that the acid test of whether a “free speech” rally is just a cover for white supremacists is whether it truly upholds free speech (which means inviting a spectrum of opinion, including the far right and the far left), whether it invites people of many races, whether it denounces violence, and whether it invites dialogue and engagement. This one did all of the above — and the organizers were deemed Nazis for it.

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.

A simple posting on the web broke my already broken heart this week. It was by Freddie deBoer, one of the heroes of the old blogosphere, and one of those old-school lefties who is prepared, at times, to take on his fellow socialists. He’s also a beautiful writer and a brilliant thinker. Money quote: “Shortly I will be headed to the Richmond University Medical Center to pursue intensive treatment for my mental illness. My day-to-day existence has become entirely unmanageable, and I fear for my health and safety … It is clear that I can never return to my old ways of engaging online, and I must leave semi-public life permanently, among many other changes. All I want is to build a quiet and simple existence where I can live and work privately without hurting myself or others.” And then, as so often with Freddie, the shocking honesty: “I would give everything I own to be anyone other than who I am. Goodbye and thank you for everything.”

Freddie is someone I barely know in physical space, but feel intensely close to. In the years of hourly blogging, he was one of a handful of people I always tried to read and who guest-blogged for me on my vacations. I happily gave space to someone whose views are very different than mine because they were so sincerely held, so clearly expressed, and he was capable of challenging his own side. There was something of Orwell in him. But I also discovered in those years what he found out: that living online is deeply dangerous to mental and physical health, that the pressures of the online crowd can overwhelm individual thought, and, in the end, thought itself. Twitter is not a place to air diverse viewpoints; it is a desiccating swarm of like-mindedness, moving as a single mutating mass, shimmering with every minuscule ripple in the news cycle, destroying all perspective, undermining learning, destroying the very process of reading, and deeply corrosive of a liberal society. If you are in the middle of the online stream, as I was for a decade and a half, and you are intelligent and attempt to be conscientious and honest, the emotional toll will be crushing. If, like Freddie, you are already bipolar, it is a deeply unsafe space.

Freddie saw this very clearly only a week ago, explaining why he had drastically culled his online content: “I wanted to look past what we once called ideology: I wanted to see the ways in which my internet-mediated intellectual life was dominated by assumptions that did not recognize themselves as assumptions, to understand how the perspective that did not understand itself to be a perspective had distorted my vision of the world. I wanted to better see the water in which my school of fish swims.” So he tried to find a new perspective, but still failed. He realized what I once saw. You cannot edit this stream. It edits you in the end. This is self-knowledge: “[T]he fact that so many people like me write the professional internet, the fact that the creators of the idioms and attitudes of our newsmedia and cultural industry almost universally come from a very thin slice of the American populace, is genuinely dangerous.”

It is — and getting more so. I just want to say this to my friend: You have checked yourself in not because you are insane, but because you tried to retain your sanity. It is America that is going nuts; and the internet is one reason why.

The art of the public apology is one few have mastered — although there are many public-relations pros who can tell you how to do it. I suspect it’s become even rarer these days because true contrition has as well. In our president, we see a man who has contempt for any idea of self-reckoning, and I worry that this will make things even worse. (Everything this man touches, including this country, he befouls.)

And then you stumble across a little story and regain a little hope. I refer to the column a Catholic priest just wrote, prompted by the Charlottesville horror. It speaks for itself: “What most people do not know about me is that as an impressionable young man, I was a member of the Ku Klux Klan. It’s public information but it rarely comes up. My actions were despicable. When I think back on burning crosses, a threatening letter, and so on, I feel as though I am speaking of somebody else. It’s hard to believe that was me.” But it was. “The images from Charlottesville are embarrassing. They embarrass us as a country, but for those who have repented from a damaging and destructive past, the images should bring us to our knees in prayer.”

What he sees is something easy to forget: Those marchers were not merely propagating evil, they are also its victims. Believing that human beings are somehow inferior or superior because of their innate characteristics is not only to believe a lie; it is to live in a prison. It is putting you and others into a false category from which none of us can escape. To see nothing in one’s own body and soul but whiteness or blackness dehumanizes the self and others. Those marchers, like the president who excused them, are not just hateful; they are also miserable. Sometimes I think we see transcending racism as a delusion, and perhaps it often is. I share the view held by the civil-rights movement in its heyday that transcending it is only possible through a greater power than ourselves; and that its essential characteristic is liberation. It is a pathway to being fully human.

The priest, by the way, is not merely writing beautiful words. In a note appended to the article, the Diocese writes: “Father William Aitcheson’s article was written with the intention of telling his story of transformation. He voluntarily asked to temporarily step away from public ministry, for the well being of the Church and parish community, and the request was approved.”

See you next Friday.

The Boston Rally and the Left’s Intolerance of Free Speech