Afraid of Free Speech, on Many Fronts: PEN, Google, China, Goliath

Free societies depend on free-swinging critiques, even those that are "unbalanced" or "go too far."

From left: Atlantic moderator, Doctorow, Nafisi, Gessen, Simon. Twitter photo by @David_MSullivan

On Wednesday afternoon, as previewed earlier, I got to serve as moderator for a panel of four very eminent writers: E.L. Doctorow, Masha Gessen, Azar Nafisi, and David Simon. The discussion was co-sponsored by PEN, Google, and The Atlantic, and was held at the Newseum in Washington. Its topic was “Who’s Afraid of Free Speech,” which led to everything from the legal or extralegal controls on expression in China, Russia, Iran, etc.; to the ramifications of the NSA era; to the economic pressures affecting journalism, publishing, and academia; and a lot more. The “more” included some heated back-and-forth about one of our hosts, Google, and a literal call to the barricades by the senior person on stage, Doctorow.

I found it surprising and informative, and I hope you will too. For technical reasons, a webcast version of the program is not yet available. I’ll put up a link to it as soon as it’s ready.

As it happens: Just two hours earlier that afternoon, I was in the audience at another D.C. discussion. (And that morning, I'd had a chance to interview Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker at another Atlantic event, with transcript here.) The afternoon event was at the New America Foundation, and I mention it here on its own merits and because of a connection to the “Afraid of Free Speech” theme.

I’ve been involved with New America since its beginning in the 1990s, initially as chairman of its board and still as a board member. New America puts on well over 100 events each year—in D.C., New York, California, and elsewhere. To the best of my knowledge, this latest session was the only time we’ve been under public or private pressure to rescind an invitation for someone to speak. There could have been other cases, but I don't know of any.

The event in question featured Max Blumenthal, who was being interviewed about his book on Israel, Goliath, by Peter Bergen, the well-known writer on war-and-terrorism topics. (Bergen is also a New America fellow; the latest of his many books is Man Hunt, about the Bin Laden raid.) In the week before the event, items like this one in Commentary had said that New America should not provide a platform for what it claimed was destroy-Israel hate speech. Some members of the board got personal email pitches to the same effect.

I wasn’t involved in inviting Max Blumenthal, but having read his book before the session and now having heard him speak, I am glad that New America and its president, Anne-Marie Slaughter, stood by their invitation. That was the right call on general free-speech principles, and also because this book should be discussed and read. [Extra disclosures: Both Slaughter and Bergen are long-time friends of mine, as well as colleagues via the The Atlantic, New America, and elsewhere. My wife and I have also been friends of Max Blumenthal’s parents for many years.]

The case against Goliath, summarized here, is that it is so anti-Israel as to represent not journalism or reasonable critique but bigoted propaganda; plus, that in being so anti-Israel it is effectively anti-Semitic. With a few seconds of online search, you can track down the now-extensive back and forth. The furor has certainly helped publicize the book, but to me those claims about it seem flat mischaracterizations. Goliath is a particular kind of exposé-minded, documentary-broadside journalism whose place we generally recognize and respect.

The purpose of this book is not to provide some judicious “Zionism at the crossroads” overview of the pluses and minuses of modern Israel. That is not the kind of writer Max Blumenthal is. His previous book, Republican Gomorrah, was about the rise of the Tea Party and related extremist sentiment within the GOP. In that book he wasn’t interested in weighing the conservative critique of big government or teachers’ unions or Medicaid. That’s Brookings’s job. Instead his purpose was to document the extreme voices—the birthers, the neo-secessionists, the gun and militia activists, those consumed by hatred of Barack Obama—who were then providing so much of the oomph within Republican politics.

That book was effective not because Blumenthal said he disagreed with these people. Of course he did, but so what? Its power came simply from showing, at length and in their own words, how they talked and what they planned to do. As Blumenthal pointed out in this week’s New America session, that earlier book argued, a year before the Tea Party’s surge victories in the 2010 midterms: These people are coming, and they are taking the party with them. His account wasn’t “balanced” or at all subtle, but it was right.

His ambition in Goliath is similar. He has found a group of people he identifies as extremists in Israel—extreme in their belief that Arabs have no place in their society, extreme in their hostility especially to recent non-Jewish African refugees, extreme in their seeming rejection of the liberal-democratic vision of Israel’s future. He says: These people are coming, and they’re taking Israeli politics with them. As he put it in a recent interview with Salon, the book is “an unvarnished view of Israel at its most extreme.” Again, the power of his book is not that Blumenthal disagrees with these groups. Obviously he does. It comes from what he shows.

To see for yourself, just watch a few minutes of the video Blumenthal and his associates made a few months ago, about recent anti-African-immigration movements. The narration obviously disapproves of the anti-immigrant activists, but that doesn’t matter. The power of the video comes from letting these people talk, starting a minute or so in.

Someone other than me can put in perspective all the offsetting forces within Israel’s current political-social dynamics. But I can say that Blumenthal has made a sobering prima facie case that there are extreme forces to be aware of, and reckoned with more fully that American discourse usually does. And, very importantly, his doing so is no more “anti-Israel,” let alone anti-Semitic, than The Shame of the Cities and The Jungle and The Grapes of Wrath were anti-American for pointing out extremes and abuses in American society.

Or Death At Any Early Age or The Octopus or Black Like Me or Gentleman’s Agreement or An American Dilemma or The Other America or The Autobiography of Malcolm X or Mississippi Burning or Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee or any other documentary/dramatized polemic about American injustice. Or any more than David Simon’s magnificent The Wire saga was anti-American in portraying a society that, from top to bottom and in ways big and small, was violent and predatory and corrupt. To return to our PEN panel: Free societies need this kind of cleansing discussion, and they need to be able to tolerate and hear it even when it’s “unbalanced” or "goes too far."

Here is the video of Blumenthal at New America two days ago. The first half is his recitation of his case, which frankly comes across like a recitation. I suggest you start around time 41:00, when the questioning begins. In the questions Blumenthal addresses two significant points.

One is the very first question Peter Bergen asks him: Why, why did he use language notorious from the Nazi era—“Night of Broken Glass,” for instance—to talk about Israeli extremists? Many of his critics have claimed that he is likening Israel to Nazi Germany, which if you read the book you'll see is not true. But you can’t count on everyone having read it. So, Bergen asks, What was your intent in using language of this sort?

Blumenthal’s answer was that he used these terms purposefully, to draw the universals from the “never again” message of the Holocaust. In its scale, he says, the Holocaust was uniquely devastating; but—his argument—the lessons of respecting rights and avoiding group discrimination should be more broadly applied. Logically he has a case, but this leading-with-the-chin bluntness gives critics too easy a target and tool.

The other point, familiar to anyone with even modest exposure to Israeli discussion, is how broad the range of debate on Middle Eastern topics is within Israel itself, compared with the usual range in the United States. Israeli writers, politicians, citizens, etc., say things about modern Zionism, the “peace process,” the future of their country, and everything else that would seem dangerously inflammatory in U.S. discourse. In part that’s natural: We feel free to criticize our own but don’t like outsiders doing it. Yet Blumenthal had an illustration of its odd effect. In its English version, the Jewish Daily Forward excoriated his book: “Max Blumenthal’s Goliath Is Anti-Israel Book That Makes Even Anti-Zionists Blush.” Whereas the Yiddish edition of the Forward has a review that (I am assured by someone who can understand it) is quite respectful of the book and the importance of such criticism.

Maybe Blumenthal’s perspective and case are wrong. But he is documenting things that need attention; no one has suggested that he is making up these interviews or falsifying what he's shown on screen. If he is wrong, his case should be addressed in specific rather than ruled out of respectable consideration. If he's right, we should absorb the implications.

Let me bring this back to my normal turf. The China news of this past month involves ever darkening press prospects, for both domestic and international media. This is a genuinely bad situation, about which I'll say more soon. At the moment please check out Evan Osnos's update for the New Yorker. It includes this crucial passage:

China is gradually losing interest in soft power. The Party spent much of the past decade seeking to project a more attractive and welcoming image to the world; [now] the leadership is signalling that it has concluded being liked is less important than simply surviving.

I spent some time with a senior Chinese diplomat recently, and when I asked what motivated the threat of expulsion, the diplomat said that the Times and Bloomberg were seeking nothing short of removing the Communist Party from power, and that they must not be allowed to continue. That argument surprised me: I had expected a bland procedural defense—this was a blunt expression of fear.

At a time when we're upbraiding China for trying to silence awkward critics, the last thing we should be doing is acting afraid of free speech, even the awkward kind, ourselves.