June 12, 2024

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From Kalapuya lands in the Willamette watershed

MAGA to the left of me, MAGA to the right, here I am, stuck in the middle with you

7 min read
Stifling speech doesn’t make you progressive, woke, or a champion of the oppressed. It just makes you left-wing MAGA.

by Ted M. Coopman

Politics is not so much a right-to-left spectrum as a circle or horseshoe where the extremes meet at the ends. If you’ve not already noticed, when you go far enough to the left, you hit MAGA — Make America Great Again.

MAGA isn’t really a political movement so much as a way to interact with a world that feels out of control, a world that is set against you as an individual, that seeks to invalidate your identity. It is deeply anti-intellectual, tribal, grievance-based, and less interested in winning than ensuring the “other” losing.

Specifics such as isolationism and anti-immigrant policies are simply ways for certain ideologues to weaponize a general zeitgeist that predated it. Trump did not invent MAGA. He simply branded and harnessed it for his own ends.

To be clear, I think Trump is overtly fascist, anti-American, and his attempt to fertilize ethno-Christian authoritarianism is incredibly dangerous. Moreover, I am not creating a false equivalency between the excesses on the left versus the right. The primary danger posed by leftist extremism is not to democracy itself, but to alienate people resulting in political disengagement or driving them into the arms of the right.

Authoritarianism is always self-inflicted and most often emboldened by the failure of its opponents to counter it with a compelling vision. Relying on the extremes to empower political movements creates a corrosive vortex of hate that destroys everything it touches. The primary affordance of movement extremes is not to drive actual policy, but to make the moderate elements look more palatable by comparison—for example, compare Earth First! with the Sierra Club.

Political parties who think they can ride the crazy to victory ultimately find out it is the crazy that is riding them. History has shown us time and time again that those who try and harness such forces are ultimately destroyed by them, along with everyone else.

The authoritarian trap is that people are deluded into thinking they will be safe as long as they are on the winning side. But the reality is the central affordance of authoritarianism is arbitrary violence to achieve political ends and that no one is safe. For an excellent illustration, see the film Death of Stalin. If you are looking to get absolutely terrified of the current political climate, also see Babylon Berlin.

Since 2016, elements within the left and right have lost faith in democracy. On the left, the election of Trump signaled that the electorate cannot be trusted to make decisions. Instead of using defeat as a signal to recalibrate, ideologues always face defeat by doubling down. For them, defeat is always the result of insufficient extremism, not going far enough. Within the left, it engendered a social media-fueled fratricide, with self-appointed Red Guards purging the insufficiently progressive as defined by whoever wields the digital sword.

Perhaps the most dangerous manifestation of this idea is that “words are violence,” or more accurately: Ideas that one may find disturbing, upsetting, challenging to your identity, or otherwise failing to adhere to your ideological bent are equal to physical violence and should be treated as such.

As someone who once served on the editorial board of the First Amendment Studies academic journal, please indulge me as I get my professor on.

Even incitement to violence, which is not protected by the First Amendment, is not violence. Words and ideas are not violence, a fact that I can demonstrate empirically to you in 30 seconds or less (after you sign a waiver…).

This trope is dangerous because, if you believe certain words or ideas are equal to physical violence, then physical violence in response to those words and ideas is justified as self-defense. It also trivializes actual physical violence and the experience of those who been the subject of actual violence, all in the name of making an ideological point—or rather, keeping someone else from doing so.

The First Amendment

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances. —First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution

There is a technical definition of the right of free speech and a conceptual understanding of free speech. Conceptually, “free speech” is the idea that I should be able to speak freely. Technically, a right to free speech, narrowly defined, centers on “prior restraint.” That means the government—originally only the federal government but later extended to state and local governments—cannot prevent you from speaking or printing (most) ideas.

An important caveat is that the First Amendment does not protect you from government action after you have expressed yourself. This is something important to keep in mind when expressing yourself. Much like conceptual free speech, there may be consequences because, to paraphrase, freedom (of speech) is not free.

You have no free speech “rights” on social media or at a private venue. It applies only to the government preventing you from speaking. Non-speech or non-print expression, like flag burning, was not included until the last century and even film was not protected by the First Amendment until 1947. The internet was not deemed covered by the First Amendment until 1996. Over time, the courts have extended free speech and expression protections, not restricted them. That was considered a good thing.

Originally, the right of a “free press” was literally the right to print things if you had a printing press. This was quite a leap in the 15th century, prior to the adoption of parliamentary democracy. At its core was the simple premise that by putting ideas and ideologies into the public sphere, those in power would be aware of them, and that those ideas were subject to moderating critique and debate. Ideas pushed underground can fester unencumbered.

To put it another way, I would rather know what the fascists are thinking instead of being surprised when they act.

Freedom’s just another word

What can and cannot be said, as far as your actual First Amendment right, is broadly based on a few key concepts, including the idea of “viewpoint neutrality” in restricting speech to specific times, the manner, and place.

Regardless of message or messenger, everyone must have the same rules. The First Amendment does not allow government to cherry-pick what ideas get aired, only the time, manner, and place. Protests in the public square are okay, blocking the freeway is not, and your free speech rights are not impinged by you getting arrested, fined, or incarcerated for deviating from the rules that apply to everyone.

(Note to whiny protesters – the power of civil disobedience is knowing there will be consequences but doing it anyway. It is poor form to complain about the consequences, as it completely undercuts the act itself.)

Why viewpoint neutrality matters

This all brings us to current mania on elite university campuses—and it is almost always elite universities populated by elite privileged students that most of us could never qualify or afford to attend—of deciding what speech or speaker is acceptable and what/who is so heinous that it/they must be banned outright or prevented from speaking.

The reason for the government’s viewpoint neutrality is that if you start to decide what ideas and what people get rights, well, then someone must decide. Some individual or group must have the power to decide. The central premise of the First Amendment is that no one should have that power because there is no way you can equitably judicate it. Power corrupts, absolutely.

That power certainly should not be placed with a bunch of 20-somethings with an unsupported expansive view of their own intelligence, wisdom, and morality. That is how you get to parsing the comparative terribleness of slaughtering civilians depending on their status. (Spoiler Alert: killing noncombatants = bad.)

Honestly, it is not really the 20-somethings’ fault, because as anyone who is no longer in their 20s knows, you were not as smart as you thought you were at the time. It is the university administration’s fault for placating students. The administrators are not a bunch of privileged 20-somethings and should know better.

Anger MAGA-ment, or, You become what you hate

The First Amendment is both a feature and bug of our system. The idea of it is central to preventing authoritarianism and mob rule and its effectiveness is evidenced by the breadth of people who find it situationally inconvenient.

But if you accept the premise that someone gets to decide what gets said and who says it, then you open the door to someone who may be hostile to you or your own beliefs taking that power. To take this power on yourself validates the premise. That is why, regardless of the intent, stifling speech doesn’t make you progressive, woke, or a champion of the oppressed. It just makes you left-wing MAGA.


Ted M. Coopman offers apologies to Stealer’s Wheel for this week’s title.

Western Exposure is a semi-regular column that looks at issues and challenges from a West Eugene perspective – a perspective that is often ignored or trivialized by city leadership and influential groups and individuals largely based in south and east Eugene. 

Western Exposure rejects the fauxgressive party line, performative politics, and “unicorn ranching” policy in favor of pragmatism focused on the daily experiences of residents and small businesses in Eugene—and West Eugene in particular.

Ted has been involved in neighborhood issues since 2016 as an elected board member, and now chair, of Jefferson Westside Neighbors and has 30+ years experience as an activist and community organizer. He earned a Ph.D. in Communication (University of Washington) and served on the faculty at San Jose State University from 2007 to 2020.

Ted’s research on social movements, activist use of technology, media law and policy, and online pedagogy has been published and presented internationally and he taught classes ranging from research methodology to global media systems. He and his spouse live in Jefferson Westside with an energetic coltriever and some very demanding and prolific fruit trees.

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