Free Speech, Politics, Top Stories

Free Speech Leftists Still Exist

In brighter times, the reprimanding of Lindsay Shepherd at Wilfrid Laurier University would have found strong condemnation among left intellectuals. Instead, left publications largely chose to ignore the issue. You will find no pieces on Vox covering Wilfrid Laurier or Bret Weinstein’s clash with overreaching faculty at Evergreen, nor will the incrimination of BDS activism by US lawmakers find exposure outside of niche outlets like The Intercept. The free speech debate, in other words, has become too partisan.

When Lindsay Shepherd revealed that Jordan Peterson’s fears about Bill C16 were well-founded, and that pointing out that sex differences exist was considered by Wilfrid Laurier’s administration to be comparable to Adolf Hitler, the response of left publications was either disinterest or full-throated attacks on Peterson as a reactionary monster. If one sought to hear out Lindsay Shepherd, the outlets willing to speak with her were mainly conservative or libertarian YouTube channels belonging to figures like Stephen Crowder and Stefan Molyneux. The perception, understandably, follows that the right is in favor of free expression, and the left has become wholly illiberal.

But the hyper-partisan atmosphere surrounding free speech has ignored many left thinkers who have defended liberal principles relentlessly for years. There remain many on the left who stand for free expression and an open academy. Writing on his blog in 2015 Freddie de Boer made the obvious point that “the left should embrace free speech rights and other legal protections of rights because, due to our lack of power, the left is most likely to be subject to assaults on those rights from above.” Chris Hedges has also written forcefully against the idea of Nazi-punching as a political practice, and rejects Antifa and black bloc tactics. Angela Nagle has written objectively about the alt-right from a left position, seeking to understand web culture rather than ask for the censorship of unruly demons. Greenwald, Fang and Jilani at The Intercept routinely push back against leftist calls for censorship, and do so from their own understanding of left principles. And Jesse Singal at New York Magazine has pushed back on nonsense arguments equating free speech with violence.

Much of the commentary surrounding the regressive left traces its frustrations back to postmodernism. If knowledge is only a consequence of accepting or rejecting power structures, after all, then open debate between people can solve nothing. Language would only be an illusion designed to appease power structures or defy them. Appeals for ‘rationality’ and ‘objectivity’ would only be veiled appeals to the normality of whiteness. But recall that Noam Chomsky himself, a titan of left thought, rejected postmodernism for his entire life, and debated Michel Foucault in 1967, dismissing the blank slate and Foucault’s naïve argument that there was no defined human nature. Chomsky traces much of postmodernism to the peculiarities of French intellectuals in Paris, condemning them by noting that many were “the last Stalinists, if they weren’t Stalinists they were Maoists…Kristeva happened to be in the mid-70s, a flaming Maoist.” Chomsky was a scientist who fused his analytical attitude with critiques of media (many of which are now embraced by the right, as Donald Trump finds himself the enemy of conformist media consensus) and a dismantling of the arguments for United States military intervention. He was a modernist, and represents the rational left, which has always rejected postmodern assumptions about science, human nature and language.

Chomsky praised Alan Sokal, the professor behind the famous Sokal hoax, and he has spoken unequivocally in favor of free speech, especially for the most abhorrent elements of society. Chomsky said: “If someone calls you an anti-Semite…if someone says you’re a racist, a Nazi, you always lose. The person who throws them out always wins, because there’s no way of responding to such charges.” Understanding the nature of propaganda, one of Chomsky’s most famous quotes follows: “Goebbels was in favor of free speech for views he liked. So was Stalin. If you’re really in favor of free speech, then you’re in favor of freedom of speech for precisely the views you despise. Otherwise, you’re not in favor of free speech.”

The commitment of the left to non-dogmatic thought does not end there by any means. Young left writers such as Briahna Joy Gray have written nuanced critiques of Ta-Nehisi Coates and determinist identity politics from the left. Bernie Sanders himself has spoken against identity politics, and The Young Turks’ Jimmy Dore rails against the Democratic Party and the hypocrisy of using multiculturalism to cover up the dismissal of the working class. Elizabeth Bruenig is a socialist writer and a pro-life Christian, destroying conventional political boundaries. Just because there is a dark era in the state of our public intellectuals right now does not mean that new forces are not thriving on the margins, and seeking eventually to create a new left culture. Especially if the upcoming Generation Z is expected to reject identity politics, contrary to the millennials, a left understanding of history may be reborn entirely from its slow death in the 2010s at the hands of radical identity politics and the end of Obama’s broad but ultimately ineffective coalition to stop Donald Trump.

Shifting its ideas along with the left, figures on the right and in the center have also become increasingly critical of centralized corporate power. When James Damore was fired from Google for his views, the right of corporations to censor their employees became a serious problem. Facebook, Twitter and Google have earned the ire of conservatives for selectively applying algorithms, ‘shadow-banning’, and otherwise proving that they have the power to legislate content on their centralized platforms. Major tech companies, treated with unabashed optimism for decades, are now undergoing a major backlash from both the left and the right. In order to hold big tech accountable, and prevent humankind from transmuting itself into censored machinery designed to click on ads, the left and the right can and should cooperate to create a free and open internet. If net neutrality is dead, decentralization should follow – not the consolidation of speech on an increasingly few number of privately owned and centralized websites.

Libertarian attempts to create a decentralized internet, such as Peter Thiel and Curtis Yarvin’s ongoing Urbit experiment, strike me as necessary and interesting. I may disagree with Thiel, and Yarvin’s politics strike me as utterly abhorrent, but a dogmatic attitude that people we dislike and disagree with are incapable of contributing to the future will only cripple our ability to engage with reality. Decentralizing tech, or creating an individualized internet not subject to single social media leviathans whom we never consented to be ruled by, are promising goals if we hope to preserve a future of open discourse.

The margins of politics do often agree on certain critical ideas. Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump both opposed NAFTA and the Trans-Pacific Partnership, because they understood that global capital does harm middle class American workers who cannot be expected to compete with sweat shops in an open marketplace. I find Trump’s nationalism to be shallow, but leveraging national identity against a global cosmopolitan authority is a force that has found great traction across the left and the right. Few people find a world of impersonal cities connected by finance and run by decaying municipalities to be inspiring. If the entire world is being sculpted through capital to reflect the West, we must reconsider our priorities – the West is in a state of stagnation and atrophy, as unlimited global capital has in many ways taken our culture as far as it can go. The annual reiterations of Star Wars and an increasingly niche literary scene reflect repetition, exhaustion and pretentiousness as our main outlets of creative expression.

A kind of feeling is evident in the air, that we are at a point in history where we are burning our bridges to an old world and stumbling headlong like depressed and awkward homunculi into a new one we cannot possibly understand. As social media, virtual currency and technology only continue to accelerate their influence over our lifetimes, it does not make sense to hold on to old political arrangements. As far as I’m concerned, the left and the right are both dinosaurs coping with their own ignorance of major cataclysms to come.

We should follow Jordan Peterson’s Jungian advice in times in these – we have elements of our culture that we must preserve, such as individual dignity, human rights, free expression and opposition to censorship, and we must fight for that against both Donald Trump and the postmodern left. But how best to do that, and how most effectively we can translate the decaying political sphere of 2017 into a vibrant new renaissance, remains to be seen.

So here is my advice – those who emotionally resonate with the political right should seek to explore the rational arguments on the left, and those who resonate with the left should seek to understand the rational traditions of the right. If we become more like our enemies, or understand the souls of our enemies, perhaps we will find the enemy outside to evaporate, and locate a more ordered republic within. After all, that is the ultimate goal of all free and open discourse – to reach a higher vantage point through discussion than two eternally conflicting, isolated sides can ever achieve on their own.


Alexander Blum is a science fiction writer. Follow him on Twitter@AlexanderBlum0 


  1. Josh says

    Really interesting article, happy to see that not everyone is devoured by the polarizing differences that seem almost fundamental to the left and right. I’d say that while Curtis Yarvin’s political thoughts are rather extreme they are a very interesting read. I believe his blog is Unqualified Reservations under the pen name Mencius Moldbug if anyone is interested.

  2. Deafening Tone says

    Do the right and left still have souls? They are getting harder to discern. Rather, it is getting harder to discern the difference between their souls: all I can see anymore is hate where a soul used to be. Let’s hope my own prediction that the hate of the extreme right and extreme left will coalesce around a rabid antisemitism does not come true, because there are currently smoldering heaps of garbage in each camp that reek of it.

    • Joe Halstead says

      I agree wholeheartedly. My only response to the article is that no one likes to lose, and so once we stake out some beliefs, we lend all our support to the most eloquent person who shares our beliefs and send him/her into the arena to win for us.

      Another way of putting it is, we don’t go into arguments hoping to EITHER confirm we were right or discover that the truth lies elsewhere. “Losing” somehow reflects on our intelligence or self-worth.

  3. dsernst says

    Yes, thanks for this piece.

    We’re besieged by reactionaries on “both sides” of the tradition spectrum, fueled by falling faith in our institutions, rising perceptions of corruption, and a paralyzed political class impotent in the face of it all.

    The reductionist framework of “left vs right” — eg “red team vs blue team” — obscures both our shared values and more nuanced differences. We need a better model.

    A growing number of us see Liquid Democracy as one of the most promising paths forward:

    We’re working on to make this a safe, easy, and trustworthy practical reality.


    • Bill says

      Well said but now it isn’t even left vs right, it’s support/agree in part with President Trump vs OMG, TRUMP!!! since the “never Trump” right is on the side of the left.

      • dsernst says

        Yes. Trump’s ascent is a symptom of our polarization, which has been increasing for decades.

        It’s a damn shame the form it’s taking right now, but at the end of the day there’s truly much more that unites us than divides us.

        • Joe Halstead says

          This is partly why I say that the craziest of ideas must see the light of day as soon as possible, because the real world is far more governed by what unites us than by what divides us. Bad ideas cultivated within echo chambers and slow-dripped into society via corporations and media outlets are more harmful than ideas shone upon brightly and either rejected or accepted.

  4. Bill says

    While your conclusion/path forward is simple, common-sense, it has little chance of happening in the modern world. Trump could say puppies and kittens are cute and the hysterics on the Left would say NO! That isn’t to say there aren’t people on the Right who won’t listen to the Left as well; however, one must recognize that those on the Right are far more skeptical of Leftist positions and arguments due to a decade of being slandered and forced into silence. You have people, for example, making the false claim of “denier of climate change!” because the Left has shaped that debate through years of fascist quelling of discussion such that even those who say “yes, the climate is changing but it isn’t CO2 (many a scientist have this position)” are shouted down as “skeptic! denier! anti-science!”

    The reality is a large segment of the Right have been forced into repressing their positions for so long that the opportunity for true discussion and debate is almost gone. The pre-election polling in 2016 is evidence of that >> you had to lie about your candidate or risk being an outcast and the view remains! Even know it’s “I hope you’re happy” constantly because if you voted for Trump, obviously you agree 100% with everything he may do just as they agreed 100% with everything Obama did /sarcasm off. Transference galore.

  5. Lee Moore says

    I read the linked article quite carefully and was struggling to find the examples of the incrimination of BDS activism by US lawmakers

    I spotted some foreign stuff (though the UK example was silly as it applies to state actors not private citizens) and I spotted reference to an ancient Jimmy Carter era law outlawing co-operating with foreign state boycotts (not private ones.) Then there were some resolutions from various US states condemning BDS. But nobody went to jail yet for ignoring a resolution. Resolutions aren’t law. Then there was some of the usual stuff from colleges, but that’s not US legislators. So we seem to be left with a law designating the “occupied territories” as part of Israel for customs purposes whose connection with “the incrimination of BDS activism” was too kabbalistic for me to follow.

    So, yes, let’s get ready to condemn US lawmakers for incriminating BDS activism. But we seem to be jumping the gun here.

    the response of left publications was either disinterest or full-throated attacks

    I don’t think you mean “disinterest.”

  6. We should follow Jordan Peterson’s Jungian advice in times in these – we have elements of our culture that we must preserve, such as individual dignity, human rights, free expression and opposition to censorship

    Dignity, human rights, free expression and opposition to censorship aren’t ‘Jungian’.

    I understand that Peterson’s resistance to postmodern bullshit has made him a bit of a hero to many, and Quillette is a vital resource for those on the Left still committed to rationality and civil liberties in these irrational and authoritarian times, but the credulity too often extended towards Jungian claptrap rather undermines any commitment to rationality and empiricism.

    • David Gowers says

      That particular error looks like Alexander’s. I doubt that Peterson would assert that individual dignity, human rights, free expression, opposition to censorship are particularly Jungian.
      I’ve certainly watched a fair bit of his stuff and haven’t encountered anything like that.

      It’s possible that Alexander’s intent was to point at the need to transform the culture rather than tear it all down; That could be construed (weakly, IMO) as Jungian. If that was the intent, then it’s a confusing sentence that needs rewording.

  7. Allan Laxdal says

    Objective and in that middle of the road sweet spot. Lets one look down from above with hope. Thanks.

  8. Great piece with a lot to agree with and, for me, little to disagree with…along with a picture of one who is (literally, here) a poster-boy of its discipline. Thank you.

  9. Carl Sageman says

    This is an excellent article.
    I’ve heard some people talk that this issue transcends left and right. I used to consider my self left leaning until about a decade ago when extremist postmodernism derailed common sense (seen in the rise of HuffPost, Vox, etc – we know the players). It’s not that I’ve become right or alt-right. It’s simply a rejection of identity politics, intersectionality, revisionist history and anti-science and no-objective truth.
    The idea of looking past left and right is essential and I believe many people are there. However, mainstream media, Hollywood and our governments are tuned in to social media, which is riddled with identity politics.

  10. Thank you Mr. Blum. As a former college ideologue (now in middle age), I agree that political censorship is a bad idea. I now consider myself a Burkean “pragmatist” — principled but realistic and genuinely tolerant. I am always glad to hear of intellectual integrity from the liberal/left position. Reminds of me Orwell’s objective detestation of totalitarianism in any form.

  11. So because you can find some obscure statements over the years from self-leftists that therefore liberals aren’t failures and hypocrites who’ve abandoned everything they ever expected me to believe? and no reason for the rest of us to put our wine in new wineskins if we still have these goals but don’t employ 20th century leftist thought due to the overwhelming evidence that liberalism is the same as the last bunch of fascists and witch hunters? you set yourself up as ‘mr. reasonable’ who knows it’s just ‘a few bad apples’ and not proof that we need a new way to understand human problems-then what pray tell would be conclusive evidence to you that there is a cause and effect relationship between leftist assumptions and this outcome that only ‘looks bad’ but really isn’t?
    What are the signs of the times that indicate to the reasonable person that this outcome is not the product of people misusing good analysis but the result of people correctly using bad analysis?
    Any fool can see the beam in their brother’s eye, but how do i know when I am become evil?

  12. Alex says

    If you haven’t already, I highly recommend to watch the debate between Chomsky and Foucault.

    If anything, a good opportunity to look at Chomsky when he was young.

    Pay special attention at 37:45. Everything about PoMo’s nature is explained. It’s absolutely chilling.

    I’m amazed at how much Chomsky has remained the same person. Articulate, decent, admitting his own flaws, never conceding to half-baked rationale, passionate about science, and when reason isn’t of any help, always trusts common decency to pick the next step forward.

    The moment they discuss proletarian take-over… I can’t think of a better picture of the mess we are in today.

  13. Kurt says

    “…nor will the incrimination of BDS activism by US lawmakers find exposure outside of niche outlets like The Intercept

    One man’s exposure is another man’s unhinged Israel hating rant. And check out the comments section.

    One enterprising fan of Glenn has a solution to the Jewish menace: seripticiously sticking a thumb into imported Israeli produce at markets

    Such lovely people. Like most all inhabitants of Turtle Bay.

    Sorry. Everybody is entitled to all the Jew/Israel hatred you want in your own dark heart. But when your derangement seeks to impose official retributiion against the only beacon of democracy and civilization in the Middle East, while ignoring the hoards constantly at their door seeking their destruction, then you need opposition.

    Efforts to stop and defeat you are no more an effort to stifle speech than your BDS efforts themselves are. And who gets shut up more on campus, BDS or anti BDS?

    BDS advocates shouldn’t be silenced, they should be exposed as the supporters of a vile exterminatinist movement.

    • steve drinnon says

      Zionists are ethnofascists, as are you apparently. Israel, the light unto the Middle East LOL

  14. Irene Macintosh says

    Very good article. I have been given hope that the left ( or at least some good thinkers on the left)has not totally forgotten what it stood for. Thank you Mr. Blum

  15. The *right* vs *left* paradigm is history’s most successful example of the “divide and conquer” strategy. Check it out for yourself:

    The real problem facing humanity is called “authority”. Whenever I give some authority to someone who doesn’t care about me, inevitably, that person will use my authority to promote their own self-interest. I have done it myself, and you probably have done it too.

    Multiply that by 350 million peoples, and you have the authority problem called the United States Federal Gouvernment. The “s” at the end of the singular word “people” is important.

    We each individually make our own life choices. We [would like to think that we] choose what we believe in, therefore we are responsible for our beliefs. If you believe in the necessity of your government and you gladly contribute to its financial well-being every year, it is only logical that you should be held accountable for what that government does in your name and with your money.

    You’re in the club. When the police raids the club, you can’t say you didn’t really want to be there.

    There is a way out, but it’s not an easy one. You have to become a rebel (just like in Star Wars). You have to decide for yourself that you will struggle painfully and at great risks to your well-being, against the Empire of the status-quo. Anything short of that, and you’re still in the club.

    Forget Oprah. Forget Trump. Forget Bernie too! Forget the Bushes, the Clintons, the Morgans, and any other royal-american dynasty. We have new technologies that allow us to peacefully reach consensus among vast numbers of unknown, untrusted, and even adversarial individuals who may share a common interest.

    There is a reason your government doesn’t want you to use crypto-currencies. It is a technology of peace. We could build our roads and protect our homes without their military-prison-pharma-police-facist-socialist-moredividinglabels system.

    Women and men will never always agree. “label-1” and “lable-2” will never always be the same; let alone that weird minority called “epithet-0”.

    Let’s stop dividing ourselves. We often mean the same thing, we just have different ways of spelling it.

    I am personally unable to categorize myself as “left” or “right”. It is a false dichotomy that doesn’t apply to me, even while most people reading this will try to force me into one category or the other.

    I bet these simplistic categories also don’t apply to the beautifully complex and chaotic person that you are.

    Peace is the way. Google #voluntaryism #taxationistheft

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