Wednesday, April 02, 2014

A Herbert Marcuse mention pops up in "The Nation"

Michelle Goldberg brings up Herbert Marcuse's famous essay, "Repressive Tolerance" in #CancelColbert and the Return of the Anti-Liberal Left The Nation 04/02/2014:

Nor is this just happening here. In England’s left-wing New Statesman, Sarah Ditum wrote of the spread of no-platforming—essentially stopping people whose ideas are deemed offensive from speaking publicly. She cites the shouting down of an opponent of the BDS movement at Galway University and the threats and intimidation leveled at the radical feminist Julie Bindel, who has said cruel things about trans people. “No platform now uses the pretext of opposing hate speech to justify outrageously dehumanising language, and sets up an ideal of ‘safe spaces’ within which certain individuals can be harassed,” wrote Ditum. “A tool that was once intended to protect democracy from undemocratic movements has become a weapon used by the undemocratic against democracy.”

Call it left-wing anti-liberalism: the idea, captured by Herbert Marcuse in his 1965 essay “Repressive Tolerance,” that social justice demands curbs on freedom of expression. “[I]t is possible to define the direction in which prevailing institutions, policies, opinions would have to be changed in order to improve the chance of a peace which is not identical with cold war and a little hot war, and a satisfaction of needs which does not feed on poverty, oppression, and exploitation,” he wrote. “Consequently, it is also possible to identify policies, opinions, movements which would promote this chance, and those which would do the opposite. Suppression of the regressive ones is a prerequisite for the strengthening of the progressive ones.” [my emphasis]
Well, no, that's not exactly what Marcuse's essay said, "that social justice demands curbs on freedom of expression."

I wrote about Marcuse's essay and the two that accompanied it when it was published:

1. Are there problems with tolerance?
2. Robert Paul Wolff on going "Beyond Tolerance"
3. Barrington Moore, Jr., on science and tolerance
4. Tolerance, social analysis and radical democracy
5. Herbert Marcuse on repressive tolerance
6. The need for tolerance, its limits and its "repressive" form

Michelle seems to be following the Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. caricature of Marcuse, which I discuss in Political violence and "existential politics" 06/30/2013. And at greater length in Herbert Marcuse, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., Political Violence and "Existential Politics."

Her reading of "Repressive Tolerance" is at best superficial. Marcuse's essay was actually a thoughtful provocation whose main goal was to highlight the restrictions which Western capitalist democracies put on freedom of expression in fact despite the general observance of classical liberal legal forms. Marcuse was certainly not indifferent to the value of the liberal political tradition, as he showed in his important essay “The Struggle Against Liberalism in the Totalitarian View of the State“ in Herbert Marcuse, Negations: Essays in Critical Theory (1968). The English text of Negations is available online in an authorized SCRIBD edition. I discuss the "Struggle Against Liberalism" essay in National Socialism vs. Liberal Philosophy (2010 paper).

Ironically, in connecting her misreading of Marcuse to speech codes and the like, she winds up echoing one of the weirder theories to creep out of the far-right swamp, one that argues that the Frankfurt School, of which Marcuse was a major figure, was responsible for "political correctness." Here's a post I did on it: "Cultural Marxism": a far-right conspiracy theory involving the Frankfurt School 07/30/2011.

Here's is one of my favorite journalists. Her book Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism is one of the best things I've read on the Christian Right.

I'd like to think it was unintentional that she seems to be invoking that crackpot theory. But she's dug around in the far right way more than most journalists have. And this one's been around for a while.

From the white supremacist gutter to "The Nation"? Please tell me it was just a bad-hair moment!

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