A Streetcar Named Freedom


It’s always fun watching some red on red violence (no metaphor here – as we have now been repeatedly told, words are violence too), and the latest outbreak is particularly one enjoy:

On Tuesday, Harper’s Magazine published an open letter co-signed mostly[*] by prominent left-wing voices decrying the “intolerance of opposing views, a vogue for public shaming and ostracism, and the tendency to dissolve complex policy issues in a blinding moral certainty,” that has become fashionable amongst the younger generation of liberals. “The free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society, is daily becoming more constricted,” the letter warned. “This stifling atmosphere will ultimately harm the most vital causes of our time.”

Signatories to the letter include Margaret Atwood, Gloria Steinem, J.K. Rowling, Matthew Yglesias, and other recognizable names within the entertainment industry, journalism, and academia, including famed left-wing anti-capitalist Noam Chomsky.

(* some signatories are centrist or soft right, like Francis Fukuyama, David Frum, Bari Weiss and Anne Applebaum)

While many on the right are savouring the irony of agreeing with Noam Chomsky on anything, other have noted the hypocrisy:

Ian Miles Cheong from Human Events saw things a little differently. “I see only a collection of spineless liberals who never spoke out when cancel culture came for conservatives but now express concern when it’s affecting the intelligentsia,” he tweeted. “And how do they respond? With mild chiding, as if the far left are children to be scolded.”

“Hilariously ridiculous,” mocked David Rubin. “And several people on there who have tried to cancel me personally. The weakness of liberalism is totally out in the open.”

The letter created somewhat of a storm on social media, with many younger generation lefties vehemently opposed to the sentiments expressed by some of their elders.

How did it come to this? In the immediate sense, Cheong and Rubin are right that the Atwoods and the Rawlings of this world only became interested in the issue when the revolution started eating its own and their spiritual children started coming after them – a sort of like Robespierre and Danton (too late) penning an open letter against the guillotine. Or the “last line” in Pastor Niemoller’s letter finally waking up to danger, after “they” have already come for everyone else.

So how did it come to this on a meta-level – how did the left, which for a long time championed ideas like freedom of speech, come to be the new censors and book burners?

The answer is short and simple: power.

Thanks to its Marxist heritage, the left is all about power. Who has it, who doesn’t (Lenin’s famous ur-question “who whom?”), how to get it. Power and power relationship is the ultimate touchstone and lodestar, the prism through everything else is seen and judged. Everything, including morality – what’s right, what’s wrong – flows from the position in this binary system (and with power it is a zero-sum game: you either have it all or you have none).

Turkish Islamist president Recep Erdogan has once famously said “Democracy is like a streetcar. When you come to your stop, you get off.” The stop – the end – is power; democracy is the mean to the end.

So it is with the left and freedom. The left was pro-freedom when it was on the way up. Being pro-freedom helped them achieve their objectives. Freedom of speech, for example, was important because it guaranteed them the ability to spread their ideas.

Now the left has the power, if not in all respects and in equal measure, certainly as far as culture is concerned, where it enjoys near hegemony. Being on top it doesn’t need freedom of speech anymore. Quite the contrary: freedom of speech now enables its critics to challenge their ideas and their position. Debate is a waste of time and effort, much better and more efficient is to silence any dissenting voices.

It’s never about principle – it’s about the side (yours) and power (yours to gain and keep).