Friday, April 1, 2016

Commonweal Editorial Slams "Illiberalism" That Would Shut Down Free Speech of Trump Fans: Implications for Commonweal's Discussions of LGBTQ Lives?

As I noted yesterday, the leading "liberal" Catholic journal in the U.S., Commonweal, has just published an editorial statement which maintains that "illiberal" forces in American democracy are seeking to shut down the free speech of anyone who is not a member of a minority group. The editorial (which, unfortunately, came out only a day after a 15-year-old girl was pepper sprayed in the face by protesters at a rally in Paul Ryan's hometown of Janesville, Wisconsin, as Trump supporters screamed "Nigger lover!" and "Bitch!" at her) points to the actions of anti-Trump protesters to combat racism and misogyny as evidence that "illiberal" groups are now working to suppress the free speech of those with whom they disagree.

The Commonweal editorial states, 

The Chicago anti-Trump protests exemplify an ugly strain of illiberalism at work in many corners of American society, one that dismisses freedom of speech as the tool of the privileged and makes the right to political expression contingent on the content of a speaker's views or on one's status as the member of an oppressed group. This would be worrying at any time, but the rise of Trump only makes it more so. It is difficult to imagine a worse context for repudiating liberal, democratic norms than in the face of a Trump candidacy—after all, these are the very norms to which authoritarian demagogues like Trump have so little attachment, and which his presidency would imperil.

On the face of it, it would seem to me that Commonweal's editors have a hard slog ahead of them as they seek to convince us that there's "an ugly strain of illiberalism at work in many corners of American society" today seeking to shut down the free speech of others — and as they attempt to convince us of this right after people attending a Trump rally once again expel protesters violently, shutting down the free speech of those protesters and attending these actions with the screaming of epithets like "Nigger lover!" and "Bitch!"

On the face of it, it would seem that the real problem on which a responsible Catholic journal supporting Catholic social teaching would want to focus right now would be the problem of how those on the margins of society are being treated by those with the most power in society — not the non-existent problem of some attempt of those on the margins of society to stop the rest of us from talking. It would seem that this problem would frame the political and moral concerns of Catholic intellectuals today since Catholic social teaching strongly insists that we listen in a preferential way to those on the margins of society as we work with those on the margins and everyone else to build a society that includes and respects everyone.

Not surprisingly, since Commonweal is not a liberal Catholic journal at all, but a centrist one that bends over backwards to channel the concerns of the political and religious right to the Catholic center, while relegating those to the right of center to the margins of the conversations of the center, the editorial is implicitly endorsing the counter-empirical claims of conservative commentators including Jonathan Chait, Matt Rozsa, Alan Dershowitz and others that illiberal political correctness is running amok on college campuses, and is threatening the free speech of non-minority members of campus communities. The Commonweal editorial, in fact, specifically states that "[t]he illiberalism of such protests is perhaps most evident on today’s college campuses."

As Aaron Hanlon (and other incisive commentators) have noted, there simply is no such movement of political correctness run amok on American college campuses. It's a fabrication of the fevered imagination of the political and cultural right in the U.S. 

It's an attempt, in short, to do precisely what it claims to abhor — to shut down the free speech of those who speak to the center from the margins and therefore threaten to unsettle the center, the status quo, by making their voices heard in "official" conversations from which they've been long excluded. As I have noted above, it would seem that opening such official conversations, the institution-defining discourse of the center, to those on the margins would be at the very heart of any authentically Catholic enterprise that pays close attention to the preferential option for those on the margins of society, and to the strong communitarian ethos of Catholic teaching.

It would seem, in short, that the obligation of Catholic intellectuals would be to defend those being shouted down and manhandled out of Trump rallies as his supporters shout "Nigger lover!" and "Bitch!," not to wring their hands about a non-existent threat to the free speech of those Trump supporters or to "the privileged," a word the Commonweal edtiorial helpfully offers us as it analyzes the threat of the purported (but non-existent) "political correctness" movement suppressing free speech on college campuses today — a claim being peddled by Mr. Cruz in his campaign for the presidency.

The Commonweal editorial reveals perhaps more than it intended to reveal about who is actually privileged in the centrist Catholic discussion spaces maintained by Commonweal and other "liberal" Catholic journals in the U.S. that tack to the right, as centrist discussion spaces, while claiming to defend liberal ideas. The underlying concern in this editorial is with defending — as the editorial explicitly states — the privileged against claims of minority groups that the privileged  have an obligation to listen to those on the margins and to stop trying to shut down the free speech of those on the margins. To stop trying to shut those on the margins out of conversations that define institutions and set their course for the future . . . . 

Interestingly, Commonweal's editors choose to construe these requests of minority groups to be heard and included as an attempt to shut down the free speech of the privileged, and not as an attempt to broaden the conversation and make it more inclusive. Interestingly, the editors of Commonweal react in a defensive way to these requests which suggests that they have everything invested in identifying with the privileged and with continuing to exclude those on the margins of society from the conversations of the center. And most interesting of all, Commonweal's editors are willing to extend the warrant of free speech that belongs naturally to the privileged, as their editorial statement implies, even to some of the most marginal members of American society today — overt racists, out and out misogynists, parading their wares at Donald Trump rallies. (Or is Commonweal perhaps correct in implying that these positions are far more middle-of-the-road, including for U.S. Catholics, than many of us would wish to admit?)

I find the position staked out by the Commonweal editorial opprobrious for all sorts of reasons, but perhaps most of all because of how it so bluntly discounts central tenets of Catholic social teaching — its emphasis on a communitarianism which requires that I recognize you are essential to me, when I'm privileged and you're marginal; its demand that we listen respectfully and above all to the poor — that should be hallmarks of Catholic political and moral discourse, not tacked-on features that come only after Catholics exhibit their commitment to the status quo and to privilege. I'm also baffled by the position Commonweal's editors are defending here, because only last week, in the thread of comments responding to Mollie Wilson O'Reilly's recent posting recommending James Alison's book Faith Beyond Resentment, I saw Commonweal's blog moderators erase comments they evidently considered beyond the pale — suppressing, without any comment, the free speech of those who made these comments.

As readers of my Easter-Sunday postings will know, I had been following the discussion of O'Reilly's posting (though some Commonweal defenders have informed me that it's déclassé to read discussion threads at blogs, something only cracked and lonely losers — shades of Donald Trump! — do). I've done so because I'm concerned about the free rein Commonweal and other "liberal" Catholic discussions give to people like one Nancy/Anne Danielson, a regular at several "liberal" Catholic blog sites in the past several years, to spread poisonous homophobic ideas in the name of Catholic moral teaching.

On Easter day, I pointed readers of Bilgrimage to O'Reilly's thread, noting that someone (Nancy Danielson, in fact) had used the thread to insist that LGBTQ human beings are disordered, and to insist that this language adequately sums up "the" Catholic word to queer people, a word Nancy chooses to construe as loving and redemptive, though many queer people will disagree with her about that. I also noted that some of Commonweal's usual bullies had hopped into the discussion to defend Nancy's comments, bullying those who had sought to challenge her — as the "liberal" movers and shakers of the Commonweal enterprise sat by in total silence.

As they always do, when this happens . . . .

And then, as I visited this thread, I saw a comment by Joseph Jaglowicz, asking Nancy about her gay son, and I saw a rude response to Joseph by Mark Proska attacking "libs" as hateful — and both of those comments quickly vanished. Please don't misunderstand me: I'm not attacking the notion of moderating blog discussions. I'm not attacking the notion that moderators of online discussion sites have an obligation to keep conversations civil, and that they may sometimes have to expunge comments in order to accomplish that.

But what I'd like to ask the Commonweal editors, who so strongly defend the right of the "privileged" to have their say, and who take umbrage at the right of the marginalized to challenge the privileged when the privileged shut them out of conversations: does your defense of free speech have no import at all for how you yourselves moderate conversations about issues like including queer people in the life of your church and of society as a whole? You obviously don't mind giving the Nancy Danielsons of the church free rein to employ Catholic theological language — the language of disorder — to inform everyone in the world born LGBTQ that they're defective.

But when someone asks Nancy about her own gay child, you consider such a question beyond the pale? It's too rude to be asked, though it grounds the discussion of these issues in reality — in the reality that Nancy's "Catholic" discourse of disorder affects the LGBTQ children of many other families, not to mention her very own child, if Joseph is correct that Nancy has a gay child. (I've been told, in fact, by a Commonweal regular who is unfortunately no longer with us and who was once an academic colleague of mine that the reason Nancy Danielson is so passionate about the issue of homosexuality, and the reason she plasters Catholic blog sites with declarations that gay folks are disordered, is that she does, in fact, have a gay son.)

Why are these questions that should not be raised? And openly discussed? Is it self-evident that asking these questions is uncivil or rude — when the children of many other families are affected by this eminently rude and uncivil discourse of disorder, and when the discourse of disorder is peddled in the name of Catholic orthodoxy? An orthodoxy that many Catholics reject, just as they reject the orthodox teaching about the use of artificial contraceptives . . . .

For that matter, why is it rude to ask for honest, open discussion about a bishop whose gay brother committed suicide due to the refusal of his Catholic family to accept him, when that bishop takes a public stand to attack laws trying to prevent bullying of LGBTQ young people in public schools? And when he permits a Catholic high school in his bailwick to bring in a religious woman who uses her forum in that high school to attack LGBTQ people in the name of Catholic orthodoxy? How, I'd like to ask, are we to have meaningful Catholic conversations about these issues, when those asking reality-grounding questions in these conversations are shut out of the conversation with never-voiced insinuations that they're simply ill-intentioned, rude, uncivil, cracked? With insinuations that they're "losers," when important conversations belong (self-evidently, it seems) to the winners of the capitalistic lottery system . . . .

While the people doing the shutting out are the "privileged" whose free speech must never be violated at any cost . . . .

Some Catholic concern for those on the margins!

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