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New “Free Inquiry” University Is Entirely Indifferent to the Most Silenced People in Our Society
“Free speech” discourse without taking into account the mass subjugation of America's incarcerated population is, at best, academic navel-gazing.
Recent “free speech” debates, like all debates centering exclusively on liberal norms, have been largely performative and academic, with little consideration of actual vectors of power. The discourse over the past few days has ignored the most glaring of holes in the “free inquiry” crowd’s narrative, namely that the largest segment of the American population that is silenced and has its free speech trampled on—by far and without question—is the over 2 million incarcerated people in our prison and jail system.
This week, scores of academics and writers launched, with seed funding from Palantir co-founder Joe Lonsdale, a new University under the dubiously named “University of Austin” that, for now, is a summer seminar, but allegedly will grow to include graduate and, by 2024, undergraduate classes. (Palantir—which was co-founded by Lonsdale, Peter Theil, and the CIA in 2003, and is most notable for helping U.S. government agencies spy on American citizens—seems to have spurned many billionaires Very Concerned about waning freedoms). The social media backlash was immediate and often funny, but many kept referring to the project a “grift.” This is, no doubt, a major mistake, ignoring that those behind the project are committed ideologues who appear genuinely dedicated to creating a space where they can openly “debate” “race science,” Gender essentialism, Western chauvinism, and other “taboo” subjects that have become less common (though certainly not absent) in mainstream media and cultural discourse.
Indeed, the problem with the project is not that its founders are all a bunch of privileged whiners seeking funding from a revolving cast of Baron Harkonnen-like billionaires eager to throw money at anything that creates space for whatever their current anti-woke grievance is (though this is true): It’s that they are truly committed to creating a space where, even among those mocking and disagreeing with them, we limit the debate of “open inquiry” and “free speech” strictly to what is and isn’t published in The Atlantic and what is and isn’t allowed to be platformed at Princeton. If they succeed at doing this, they’ve largely already won the debate.
A better way for the Left, or anyone concerned with the broader project of justice, to frame the issue is not to litigate the particulars of this or that campus neurosis or respond to their various push polls showing academia doesn’t have enough right-wingers. (As we all know, the only segment of society required to have “intellectual diversity” is college campuses—Goldman Sachs, the Department of Defense, and Exxon remain largely uncriticized for not having enough Marxists in leadership roles.) It’s to examine who their model of “open inquiry” ignores entirely: those incarcerated who, the Supreme Court has confirmed numerous times, have little First Amendment rights at all. The primary constituent centered in Bari Weiss and Co.’s model of free speech is academics of which, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, there are 1.5 million. This is roughly 800,000 less than currently reside in America’s prisons and jails, yet the focus is entirely on the former and not the latter.
Why? The obvious answer is that those framing the debate and raising the money from Silicon Valley donors are all rich, well-educated, and well-connected people who know and largely only care about other rich, well-educated, and well-connected people. Thus, those who are included in their model for free speech are people they know, who are of their same social standing and with whom they rub elbows at cocktail parties.
It’s broadly assumed in popular discourse, with little critical examination, that those who’ve been found guilty of committing crimes are Bad Guys whose disappearance from society and unperson status is simply taken for granted. Their speech being suppressed simply doesn’t register, much less merit outrage or concern. For a crowd that prides itself on bucking orthodoxy and asking “difficult” and “provocative” questions, University of Austin creators seem bizarrely incurious about examining this widely held, power-serving assumption. This carceral framework is confirmed by the total absence of this constituency in Bari Weiss & Co.’s model of “free and open inquiry”. Nowhere in any of Bari Weiss’ years of writing has she once mentioned anything about the free speech of incarcerated people in the United States (though she has feigned concern for imprisoned people in Official Bad Countries). Nowhere on the University of Austin’s website do they mention the free speech of incarcerated people in the United States. Nowhere in any of dozens of write-ups, reports, or press releases announcing the university is there any mention of incarcerated Americans access to “open debate” presented as a major problem in urgent need of addressing.
One may object to this point by saying University of Austin’s scope is merely academia but this is obviously not the case. From Weiss’ numerous posts on the topic, and that of dozens of other founders’ writings to the now infamous Harper’s Letter itself—they clearly believe this stifling of open debate goes far beyond the campus, and indeed this is the reason cutting it off at the source is so paramount.
So what is the state of “free inquiry” for the 2.3 million locked in cages in the United States? On paper, prisoners theoretically have some meager protections of their rights to communicate with the outside world. But, in practice, judges overwhelmingly defer to the censorship of prison authorities, who exercise tyrannical control over every aspect of prisoners’ lives. In prisons and jails across the United States, reading materials are routinely restricted and banned for specious reasons, whether it’s because they’re not in English or deemed too “challenging” of authority. Prison authorities in Colorado at one point even barred former President Obama’s book because it ostensibly posed a national security threat. As a rule mail is opened and tampered with, and certain newspapers prohibited. Prisoners who do speak out about abuse do so under threat of retaliation, given that their abusers are often the ones who hold the power to censor them. In a dark irony then, free speech is most restricted when it is needed most. Nothing is more disenfranchising of those who wish to participate in public discourse than the deprivation of their liberty, and the surveillance that goes along with it. In practice, “free speech”, “free inquiry” and “open debate” does not, at all, exist for those locked behind bars.
Others have noted this widespread indifference to power imbalances among the “open inquiry” club. Some of University of Austin’s defenders, such as Glenn Greenwald, have argued that the wealth and prominence of “free speech” defenders is the point: They’re not defending themselves from being “canceled,” but sticking up for poor and obscure people who, Greenwald argues, are at most risk of the life-ruining consequences of the so-called woke mob. This argument appears compelling on its surface, but upon closer examination amounts to little more than token, ass-covering. Sure, Weiss sometimes comes to the occasional defense of a powerless student support coordinator, but only for the purpose of dunking on wacky college kids. Her focus on free speech avoids a much more challenging question: What of the millions of people rotting away in America’s prison system with little-to-no speech rights? How do they not even merit a mention?
Another objection others have noted, namely Electronic Intifada’s Ali Abunimah, is that the University of Austin is a who’s who of anti-Palestinian and anti-Arab bullies who have, themselves, attempted to silence Palestinians for decades. This is true, but even this glaring hypocrisy could potentially be papered over by issuing the token press release opposing the firing of a pro-BDS professor or hiring the token a Palestinian to defang these criticisms (though this remains very unlikely).
The glaring issue of incarcerated people’s free speech rights will be difficult to ignore because it calls into question the existential problem with trying to build a political project around liberal norms as if they are coherent universal principles.
Even setting aside the subjugation of prisoners’ speech and inquiry, questions about this boutique liberal framework remain unanswered: What does “open inquiry” mean to those who cannot afford housing or food? What does “free speech” mean when real estate and billionaire-funded media can smear homeless people night in and night out while there exist no similarly sized media outlets run by the homeless? A theme we’ve discussed at length on Citations Needed is the tension between negative and positive rights. Broadly speaking, for those unfamiliar, negative rights are rights that the state (or, to grant a framing used by the University of Austin crew, private institutions) prevent you from having: for example, suppressing thought, speech, religion, assembly, or, in some libertarian interpretations, commerce. Positive rights, on the other hand, are rights that the state is obligated to provide: the right to housing, healthcare, education, etc. The University of Austin founders—and virtually all Western discussions of “Free speech”—focus exclusively on negative rights and have next to nothing to say about positive rights. In the formulation of Bari Weiss and her compatriots, Charles Murray being deplatformed from speaking at Middlebury College is “authoritarian,” whereas a homeless person starving and freezing to death on the street is not. Telling Jeff Bezos he cannot sell Mein Kampf on his website is “authoritarian,” but Amazon firing employees because they are Black or trying to form a union is not. To a socialist, one who values both negative and positive rights, this is a rigged game: Focusing only on capitalist, liberal negative rights while having zero to say on the urgency and needs of positive rights in a world with plentiful resources.
The issue of incarcerated speech rights, however, fails even the most squishy liberal negative rights standard. Even by the most libertarian interpretation of what rights are, it’s a glaring omission by the University of Austin crowd and calls into question the honesty of the whole project.
While often seen these days as a stalking horse for the Right, the University of Austin crew is correct that “Free speech” as a slogan has, at times, been a rallying cry for the Left. The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) fought “free speech battles” in various cities, namely in the western United States, throughout the 1900s and 1910s to fight local laws against union organizing, arguing in court that bans on picketing and other union activities were a violation of the First Amendment. Certainly the anarchists and socialists who made up the IWW weren’t reactionaries. The 1960s Left rallied around the moniker of “Free Speech” in an effort to combat bans on protesting on campuses, flag and draft card burning, and other government and campus attempts to stifle dissent. But all of these movements were using “free speech” as a means to an end: radical unionism, ending the Vietnam war, overthrowing the ruling class—i.e. using the power structure’s tools against them. Rarely has the ideal been presented by left movements as a political aim in and of itself. “Free speech” was about creating space for dissent because the goal was dissent. What exactly are Bari Weiss & Co dissenting against? This, to any thinking person, is the key question.
“Free speech” is not a concrete universalist principle, but a somewhat vague, context-dependent slogan that conveys a broad feeling of tolerance and openness. The University of Austin founders are correct to say its evocation ought not be limited to state intervention—this is often used as a dodge by liberals not wanting to confront these shifting norms around what is and is acceptable public debate. But to what end? If the goal is widening the circle of free speech and open inquiry, then how can the University of Austin founders ignore, entirely, the 2.3 million incarcerated people who are far more oppressed and silenced than any of the examples they list in their opening press statements?
The answer is that it’s a cultural project that is not being launched in good faith. We have a means, but a complete lack of honesty about the ends. With the exception, perhaps, of some True Believers who no doubt buy their own lofty rhetoric, it’s mostly a pretext to open up space for normalizing “race science,” anti-trans policy goals, and Gender Essentialism. Look who the most prominent members are. Andrew Sullivan used his powerful role as editor of the New Republic to push discredited “race science” and has been pushing similar themes ever since. Steven Pinker, also in the New Republic, published outright “race science” advocacy in 2006. Jonathan Haidt has consistently criticized liberals for what he calls “stereotype denial,” equating it to the Right’s embrace of intelligent design. Countless members of the collective have pushed anti-trans talking points. A couple of members were close with Jeffery Epstein. One could forgive a cynical observer from assuming that this is their end: something as simple and unromantic as just protecting a bunch of powerful people who, over the past few years, are increasingly subject to new norms and thus new forms of social stigma.
And the most glaring reason we can assume this is because the largest victim of anti-”open inquiry” systems is the incarcerated, who they, by all accounts, don’t care at all about. Incarcerated people are suspiciously absent from their model of “free speech,” as is any positive rights framework for how we can open the channels of public discourse to be more democratic: media vouchers, quotas for historically marginalized groups in academia and newsrooms, public funding for news channels for the poor and unhoused. A whole universe of promoting more “open inquiry” is mysteriously absent from their analysis. This is because, like all historical examples of those carrying the torch of “free speech,” they’re simply using it as a means to an end. And, as it turns out, their ends is simply opening up space for routine, boiler-plate right-wing grievances.