Last week, PBS broadcast “Birth of a Movement,” a film about the battle between William Monroe Trotter, a firebrand African-American publisher born a few years after the end of the Civil War, and D. W. Griffith, the filmmaker responsible for the racist classic “Birth of a Nation.” Trotter, a contemporary of W. E. B. Du Bois, was a Boston native and graduate of Harvard University, and an uncompromising advocate for racial equality, if a bit of a loose cannon. Trotter’s contempt for the accommodationist response to Southern racism championed by, among others, Booker T. Washington culminated in his incitement of a riot when Washington attempted to give an address in Boston. The pivotal conflict of his career, however, was his attempt to prevent Griffith’s ode to the Ku Klux Klan from being shown in the city. “Birth of a Nation” was not simply the first blockbuster in American cinematic history; its racialist propaganda inspired a rebirth of the K.K.K., which had all but died out prior to the film’s release. It was screened in the White House, reportedly to accolades from Woodrow Wilson himself. Trotter found himself caught between the First Amendment ideals that allowed him to publish his newspaper, the Guardian, and fighting against the distribution of Griffith’s film and, by extension, the racial terrorism that it facilitated. He chose the latter approach, appealing unsuccessfully to Boston’s political leadership to have the film banned as obscene. Griffith found the protests against his film to be a form of intolerance.
It would be tempting to think of Trotter’s concerns as particular to that era. No film as egregiously racist as “Birth of a Nation” would be released so widely, and treated as a mainstream hit, today. The current debates regarding free speech tend to center as much on the rights of those making offensive statements as those potentially affected by what is being said. Five days before the PBS broadcast, a version of Trotter’s dilemma played out at the University of California, Berkeley, when the campus erupted in violence on the day of a planned speech by Milo Yiannopoulos, a Breitbart editor and gleefully acerbic provocateur nominally distinct from the so-called alt-right. Last year, Yiannopoulos was permanently banned from Twitter for his role in a campaign of racist, sexist harassment directed at Leslie Jones, a “Saturday Night Live” cast member. When Twitter suspended his account, Yiannopoulos denounced it as “cowardly” and declared himself a martyr for the cause of free speech. Twitter, he said, was “a no-go zone for conservatives.” The tacit admission that Yiannopoulos sees targeted abuse of a female African-American comedian as “conservative” is revealing, if only in that it strips away the fig leaf of euphemism separating the alt-right from the hive of racism and sexism that defined last year’s Presidential election. That it was the Berkeley College Republicans who invited him to campus further supported this association. No chemistry department would extend an invitation to an alchemist; no reputable department of psychology would entertain a lecture espousing phrenology. But amid the student conservatives at Berkeley—and along the lecture circuit where he is a sought-after speaker—Yiannopoulos’s toxic brew of bigotries apparently meets their standard for credibility. And this recognition is as big a problem as anything he has said in his talks or in his erstwhile existence as a Twitter troll.
An even more disturbing element of the Jones incident lay in Yiannopoulos’s prediction that the Twitter ban would make him even more prominent than he was prior to it—a prediction that has largely held true. Threshold Editions, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, extended a reported two-hundred-and-fifty-thousand-dollar contract to him for a book adaptation of his lectures, titled “Dangerous.” Last month, Roxane Gay, a black female author who has also been the target of digital harassment, dropped her contract with the publishing house in protest of its association with Yiannopoulos and the mainstreaming of his bigotry. Other authors are considering following suit. (I currently have a contract with Simon & Schuster.) The concern, however, is that in the Bizarro World of American recrimination, every act of principle only furthers the perception that abusers are the real victims.
In the aftermath of the clash with Trotter, Griffith published a pamphlet titled “The Rise and Fall of Free Speech in America,” and directed a film titled “Intolerance,” which criticized not racism but people who were intolerant of it. Yiannopoulos is of a blinkered tradition that sees no distinction worth examining between martyrdom and limitations on one’s ability to attack others. Yiannopoulos’s act is the political equivalent of an N.B.A. guard flopping in the hope of drawing a foul, a rendition of victimhood so aptly executed as to pass for the real thing.
The further fact of Yiannopoulos’s fervent support for President Trump is not, then, surprising. Few figures in American history have better weaponized the imaginary grievances of entitled people who consider themselves oppressed than Trump has. This is precisely the reason why the black-clad rioters among the protesters at Berkeley who prevented Yiannopoulos from speaking—the school cancelled the event, citing danger to the public—served his ultimate interests. It was a tactical error that ignored everything 2016 should have taught us. As with Trump, who treats every reasonable criticism of his Presidency as another nail in a crucifixion, and his electorate, which eagerly co-signs that sentiment, Yiannopoulos has emerged from Berkeley as both the putative victim and victor. In the wake of the debacle, his book rocketed to No. 1 on the pre-order list in Amazon’s political-humor section. Scott Adams, the creator of the comic strip “Dilbert,” stated that he was ending his support for Berkeley, where he received a master’s degree, because he would not feel “safe” on the campus. Most significantly, Trump weighed in, tweeting, “If U.C. Berkeley does not allow free speech and practices violence on innocent people with a different point of view – NO FEDERAL FUNDS?”
The ordinary spectrum of hypocrisy is not broad enough to encompass Donald Trump, who directed the fury of his unruly admirers at specific members of the press during his rallies, and denounced the profession as “dishonest,” and who threatened to “open up” the nation’s libel laws, now adopting the pose of a protector of the First Amendment. At issue here is not freedom of speech but the freedom to treat other people, particularly vulnerable ones, badly; the freedom to whip up sentiment along the predictable fault lines and to do so without facing any consequence; the freedom to embolden forces that represent a tangible danger to people. While the digital cavalry of the alt-right rode to Yiannopolous’s defense, there was almost nothing said, certainly not by Trump publicly, although he spoke to Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau by phone about the six Muslims killed in Quebec City by a gunman who shared many of the demagogic President’s views.
Lost in the hypertensive reactions to the incident was the fact that, before the violence, the university leadership supported Yiannopoulos’s right to speak, assigned security to protect the event, and defied requests from students and faculty to withdraw the invitation. By most accounts, the rioters were not part of the campus community and thus Berkeley was, as the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education noted, now being chastised for the behavior of people with whom they had no relationship and whom they had little capacity to control. Whatever Scott Adams’s hypothetical fears for his safety on Berkeley’s campus, they pale in comparison to the realistic fears that many Muslims have about their places of worship being targeted for arson, as was a mosque in Texas, the day after Trump signed his executive order on immigration, last month, one near Seattle, two weeks earlier, and one in Florida, last September. The Southern Poverty Law Center documented eight hundred and sixty-seven incidents of harassment, many of which involved people specifically invoking Trump’s name, in the ten days following the Presidential election. The largest group of these incidents involved anti-immigrant sentiments, followed by instances of anti-black and anti-Semitic bigotry.
We know or ought to know that in a hierarchical society even civil liberties can be used in ways that reinforce those hierarchies. We are witnessing the rebirth of alchemy as a serious endeavor, an undertaking in which we transform abuse into victimhood, billionaires into besieged outsiders, and the vulnerable into vectors of mass danger. It is no more empirically sound than the old mutations of lead into gold—but it is far more marketable. And it is far more dangerous than the inept rogues who showed up on Berkeley’s campus that evening.