Berkeley University: Muzzling far-right speaker shows why 'liberalism' is in global retreat

The recent developments involving conservative gay firebrand Milo Yiannopoulos, the senior editor of right-wing American news and commentary website Breitbart, has made to the periphery of the Indian news cycle. We are vaguely aware of someone getting stopped from delivering a lecture at a university somewhere in America because of some trouble, but that is where it stops.

And yet Indians should sit up and take notice of what happened on Wednesday night at the University of California, Berkley, in great detail because the way freedom of speech was butchered at the very place where the movement for it was born in 1964. It reflects the modus operandi of Leftists worldwide, who will stop at nothing and are ready to take recourse even to violence and thuggery to retain stifling control over academia, civil society and media space.

Milo Yiannopoulos. AP file image

Milo Yiannopoulos. AP file image

This is a subject that should concern us. Not the least because Leftists in India sneeze whenever their American counterparts catch a cold. But also because they use similar tactics to systematically muffle contrary voices in our universities, civil society and media. And this Leftist hegemony is perpetuated through an intricate system of networking, peer-vetting and tribalism that is painstakingly designed to keep dissenters at bay. But before we come to this, let us recount the Berkley details.

According to media reports, a 1,500-strong crowd of students and protestors opposing far-right speaker Yiannopoulos' planned appearance at the university threw smoke bombs and flares at the campus building where he was scheduled to speak. The gay conservative writer, a polarising figure who has often courted controversy for his views, was acting on an invitation from Berkeley College Republicans. This was the final leg of his college lecture tour.

Before he could start his speech, the crowd turned violent. They pelted stones, broke window panes, looted properties, destroyed a coffee shop, threw commercial grade fireworks and Molotov cocktail at police officers and created such mayhem that police determined at one point that they couldn't guarantee security. The event was cancelled and Yiannopoulos and his team were evacuated from the building, reported news agency AP.

Let it sink in.

This is not only campus rowdies expressing their dissent; this is open hooliganism organised and executed by the Left to muzzle a contrarian voice at the very birthplace of free-speech movement. The fact that the seat of violence was a university — a bastion of tolerance — makes the irony deeper and poignant.

As Brendan O'Neill points out in his column for British newspaper Spectator, "This is the university where, in 1964 and 1965, students agitated for freedom of speech. The Free Speech Movement staged sit-ins and protests demanding that university management lift restrictions on inviting outside political speakers and on students and staff advocating for political causes. Students fought for their right to invite to 'controversial' people, including Communists, and to express their political feelings. Now, in one of the saddest and most striking volte-faces of modern times, Berkeley students do the opposite: They fight, hard, to restrict freedom of speech."

The students and attackers indulged in arson, violence, carried placards against Yiannopoulos and accused him of promoting "hate speech". Ironically, the accusation reflects the fact that Left has become the very idea that it opposes. If universities are built to safeguard liberalism, then liberalism demands that free speech should be allowed in Universities. The Left need not agree with Yiannopoulos. But by attacking him and indulging in violence to stop him from speaking, it is admitting defeat. It should have engaged the far-right provocateur in a debate and asked uncomfortable questions. But by taking recourse to organised violence to stop him from speaking, it is acknowledging that it cannot fight the battle of ideas. Moreover, by targeting a gay, Jewish individual, the Left is sadly also displaying its intolerance for the "other".

Some of the reactions are disturbing. A Yiannopoulos backer who planned to attend the event was pepper sprayed while she was talking to a reporter.

Samara Halperin, a visiting assistant art professor at Mills College, told local newspaper Daily Californian, "I'm outraged that Milo (Yiannopoulos) has been given a platform at UC Berkeley, and there should be no place for him here. He should be scared that people aren't going to stand for this."

A Berkley history student, who declined to give his name, told The Guardian, "We won’t put up with the violent rhetoric of Milo, Trump or the fascistic alt-right." According to the report, he was dressed in black and wore a face mask and carried a banner that read 'Queers bash back'. He said he identified with the 'antifa' (anti-fascist) movement and is willing "to resist by any means necessary".

If fascism implies intolerance for dissenting ideas, if fascism means forcible muzzling of contrarian voices, who's the fascist here?

The Left's actions justify Yiannopoulos, who took to Facebook to say "the Left is absolutely terrified of free speech and will do literally anything to shut it down".

Let's understand this: It wasn't an attack on Yiannopoulos per se, but on the ideas that he represents. The best way to tackle an idea is to punch holes in it and propose a better idea. But this forced imposition of censorship, which is what the Leftist students' protest was all about, is the very thing that they accuse the Right of doing.

This inversion of the liberal paradigm is a motif that we see repeatedly in India. One of the basic tenets of liberalism is tolerance. Yet the ideologues who profess to be on the side of liberalism are the ones whose actions run counter to its principles. In 2015, several authors at the Bangalore Literature Festival (BLF) withdrew from the event because they couldn't tolerate the "personal views" of BLF co-founder Vikram Sampath, author and historian who was ultimately forced to step down to save the event.

This year, Kerala CPI-M leader MA Baby and journalist-cum-author Raghu Karnad pulled out of the Jaipur Literature Festival because the organizers had included the names of two senior RSS ideologues in the list of speakers.

And we all recollect the ordeal filmmaker Vivek Agnihortri faced while screening his film Buddha In A Traffic Jam in India's different education institutions. While at one place authorities suddenly declared a holiday, permission at another venue was withdrawn, while at Kolkata's Jadavpur University, his film had to be screened at a makeshift open-air theatre and he came under physical attack from Leftist students — an experience he recounted in some detail in a piece for Firstpost.

These are just some of the instances of the way a set of ideologues, who claim to be "liberal", retain their absolute control over academia and media and use heavy-handed tactics to protect these bastions from "outsiders". And the UC Berkley event showed that this is a global phenomenon. Everywhere, the deeper the Left retreats into its last bastions of power, the wider its disconnect grows with people. No wonder it is taking recourse to violence and bidding goodbye to its claim over liberalism.


Published Date: Feb 03, 2017 05:07 pm | Updated Date: Feb 04, 2017 11:10 am


Also See