(Reminder that this post was written back in February and is about a specific action directed at DC comics; it isn’t about boycotting the Ender’s Game movie. If folks coming over from boingboing could please try to grasp all that before posting their comments, we’ll all be a little happier. –jenphalian)
I like having this blog, because it permits me to figure out what I believe. The recent issue with Scott Card is a good case in point; I found myself saying things that, before I’d written them, I wasn’t aware that I thought. I like that. It’s valuable to me. That’s why I’m continuing it over on this rock. What I want to try to work out is the more general attitude about the right of free speech, what it means, and how a revolutionary ought to apply it to a reactionary. In this post, I am going to be thinking aloud, and I’ll be talking less about the Scott Card issue, and more about trying to understand, for myself, how to look at such questions. If, by the time I get done with this, I find I’ve reversed my position, I’m going to be very embarrassed.
All right, let’s see what happens.
Some people seem to have it pretty clear. If I’m understanding the positions correctly, among those who do not see much or any ambiguity, I’m hearing a couple of different approaches:
Pro-Boycott: The guy’s a homophobic douche, and he’s actively working to deny human rights to a section of the population, and I’m not the government for heaven’s sake, I’m a consumer talking to other consumers; so if we can pressure DC Comics into not hiring this guy, we’ve done no harm (he can afford it) and maybe some good if DC starts paying more attention to the message they’re sending by employing such people.
Anti-Boycott: Anything anyone ever does that interferes with anyone’s right to express himself is wrong, or at least highly suspect.
I hope I’ve expressed both of those position accurately.
All of my inclinations and instincts incline more to the anti-Boycott than the pro: it seems to me that, the more I hate what he’s saying, the more I ought to defend his right to say it. The problems with such a simple formulation are: 1) No one is attempting to interfere with his right to express his ideas; the effort is to deny him one particular bit of work, and there the effort is far more symbolic than practical: shouldn’t comics companies give some thought to who they’re hiring, and what that says? 2) He’s not just talking, he is actively working and engaged in attempting to have laws passed that would deny human rights.
My answer to 1 is that this amounts to–no is–demanding that DC create a blacklist–a list of people who should not be employed because of political activity. Do you favor that method of fighting? Do you really want to say, “Let us use the threat of denial of employment as a method of attack against our political opponents”? That isn’t like what McCarthy did–it is exactly what McCarthy did. Yes, there was also, at a certain point, the use of the State, and that is an important difference; but most of what McCarthism was, was blacklisting–“We are not saying you cannot hire Herbert Biberman because of his beliefs; that would be unconstitutional, and besides, we’re just ordinary citizens like yourself. We’re just making sure you know that he’s a communist, and if you hire him we’ll mail letters to all of your sponsors letting them know that that you are hiring a communist, and if they don’t have a problem with that, we’ll use the internet, uh, I mean the press to make sure that everyone knows that those sponsors don’t have a problem supporting communism. Besides, he’s made a lot of money writing for TV, so where’s the harm?” So, to this I say, folks, give some really serious thought to whether you want to go there. Is sending DC a petition going down that road? I believe it is at least the first few steps.
Point 2 is rather more problematic for me. This bastard really is conspiring to deny human rights, and that is wrong; To limit one’s self to the most passive form of speech, when he is using the law, seems like fighting with one foot in a bucket. And yet–well, it’s never “just speech.” If one is speaking of one’s political opinions, whether from a podium during an election campaign, or standing up at a City Council meeting, or just blathering on the internet, one is trying to do something. One is trying to change minds, in order to change actions, in order to change the world. So if none of it is “just speech” then I think that efforts to change the law have to be looked at as part of that.
There is a third point, that isn’t mentioned much. It can be expressed as follows: But we’re right, and they’re wrong. That one is easy to dismiss, but I can’t dismiss it. It’s true. Efforts to defend human rights just aren’t the same as efforts to restrict human rights. Defending human rights is important–it’s vital, especially right now, when Bush and then Obama have done so much to take away our basic rights, and to threaten even more. So, is it okay to do things in defense of human rights that it isn’t okay to do attacking them? I can’t just throw that one away with platitudes about “fairness.” In a comment a while ago I spoke of morality as a product of society, rather than something descending from On High with the Power of Timeless Truth. We live in a society of oppressed and oppressors. For the most part, we are handed our morality by the oppressors. They believe, for example, that violence to end oppression is immoral. Go figure. I believe violence by the oppressor to maintain that oppression is immoral; I believe violence by the oppressed in order to end oppression needs to be evaluated based on how effective a tactic it is. I don’t go for “fair” as some abstraction; I am partisan. This isn’t football; it isn’t even poker. This is life. Welcome to the game.
So, then, the question immediately stops being, “is it morally wrong to try to convince DC to blacklist Scott Card.” It becomes, “Is it a good tactic to try to convince DC to blacklist Scott Card.” In the previous discussion, Emma pointed out, quite correctly, that it’s an ineffective way to create change. I agree, but there’s more. Just like in a good work of fiction, what we need to examine are consequences. And the consequences of creating a blacklist are simple: it opens the door for it’s use against us. And, frankly, we’re a lot more vulnerable than they are; they have the entire power of the massive machine of capital and the State; we have only what we can pull in with our voices.
The fight to defend human rights is, I believe, a part of the war to reconstruct society on a rational basis–because I am convinced that human rights cannot be defended otherwise than with the socialist reconstruction of society. To win that war requires (among other things) changing minds on a massive scale. Those who attempt to restrict, confine, or interfere with my ability to change minds by controlling communications media, or by economic pressure, or by physical threats, or by passing laws, or by increasing the power of the police, are enemies of freedom.
And here’s the thing: Those who would use those tactics against the enemy at this stage of the conflict, are providing them cover and justification, and thus hurting the fight for equality. At least until the balance of forces changes, I believe we need to avoid doing anything that could give the enemy the least pretext or justification for further assaults on our freedom.
So, after all of this, my conclusions have changed: I now oppose the action, not for moral reasons, but strictly for practical ones.
If anyone has stayed with me on this long, self-indulgent journey into my belly-button, you have my thanks.