FEAR OF YOUR FRIENDS AND PEERS: THE PURITAN POLICING OF LIBERAL ACADEMIA AND THE ARTS: Svetlana Mintcheva, Director of Programmes at the National Coalition Against Censorship, USA
Michael: There’s been a lot of focus on your country and Trump in terms of an indicator of the rise of right-wing populism and neo-fascism etcetera. Could you perhaps give us a perspective on emerging economies that are perhaps in a more dangerous situation, like Brazil and India, in terms of the rise of similar and more unchecked movements in those regions from the perspective of the US, looking outwards?
Svetlana: I really can’t speak about Brazil and India, but I could speak about the US. We take it for granted that we have the rule of law in the US and liberal democracy in general, and I think that rule of law might be under threat. I mean, what happened recently with the Supreme Court with the election of [Brett] Kavanaugh, the Supreme Court justice, in a very politically polarised environment: we have a Supreme Court justice who clearly had a very strong political position and clearly did not like Democrats. So this is coming now to the highest court of the land which should have the credibility of being above and beyond politics, and that credibility is being eroded. So then on the other hand you have the stacking of federal agencies with people who are not critical of the president, so I think we should not be taking too lightly the danger this could present, and also the danger that a populist, right-wing US where the rule of law is eroded, what danger that could present to the rest of the world as a somehow kind of check on human rights abuses in other countries. And my work is within the US, admitting that there are very dire situations in other parts of the world, my purpose has been to raise awareness for what is happening here in the stable, liberal West, and how rights are threatened here, where things are going and how freedom of speech, freedom of conscience, freedom of speech to me is not just about saying we are here for individual artists. I don’t think that’s entirely the case and the reason to me is when individual artists matter is when, not so much the human rights of artists though I prioritise that, but more than that, is the health of the public sphere, it’s all of us. So on the other hand, censorship, suppression affects everyone and censorship is the closing off of access to ideas, the stopping of a kind of critical thinking, and this affects society at large. Which is why I question the whole notion of relocation, because it helps the individual but it actually leaves society where the individual was at risk, in a way worse off because critical voices are gone. And what interests me also in the US is the existence of this lively public sphere which is key to any kind of democracy; you cannot have democracy without credibility; you can have a voting process, but people don’t even vote when they know that it does not matter and there’s a lot of disaffection with democratic politics, and it’s complicated. But to me, freedom of expression has to do with the political environment and what kind of political environment we want to have, we need to have, and what’s happening now in the US – which does not jail artists – is a kind of polarisation which has come to the point of fracture; it’s a very fractured public sphere in the sense that I can talk to people that agree with me and I agree with them and we agree with each other, but then there are those other people that live in a completely different reality, they are just, they agree with each other and they say that what I am saying and what my groups is saying is fake news or it is just complete lies.
Michael: So there’s no common grounds for even debating?
Svetlana: There’s no common grounds to even start from a common assumption that “this is true, and this is my opinion and this is our opinion,” no, we have come to the point where we don’t even agree on the basis, we don’t agree on what is true and what is not and that is the basis of this radical doubt of what is true.
Michael: There was this interesting debate that I chaired a little earlier this year on fake news and one of the research elements that was presented by one of the speakers was that in the United States, in terms of media consumption – and this was really counter-intuitive to me, but intriguing – that conservative consumers read far more liberal media than liberal consumers read conservative media. And that was really interesting to me because it suggested a retreat by the Western liberal values into an enclave of their own. In other words, this is not purely a conservative retreat.
Svetlana: No, no, absolutely, and I think that’s where we have liberal and left groups abandoning the whole principle of free speech. What you’re saying is really true and it’s the refusal of the left to listen to some voices on the other side – and a very aggressive refusal. The New Yorker had invited for its festival [former Breitbart head] Steve Bannon to have a discussion with David Remnick, their editor-in-chief; there was so much protest that they cancelled and they disinvited him. So, why? So you disagree with Steve Bannon, you find him to be a dangerously anti-immigrant racist, whatever, but where does the refusal to even listen to debate with him leave you? They were not celebrating him; it was a conversation and many people were interested in listening to the conversation, but there’s this whole notion of deplatforming.
Michael: Which actually has an element of dehumanisation to it, does it not?
Svetlana: Very strongly so, I mean that is the goal of deplatforming, so these people cannot have ideas that are worth listening to at all, they are pure evil. So this is creating somebody who is pure evil who you cannot engage with because if you engage with them you are legitimising them.
Michael: Well obviously this is a difficult debate, it’s not straightforward. We obviously understand the principles of don’t give platform to outright hate speech and fascism etcetera, but this whole demonization of essentially half the [US] population or whatever your statistic wants to be is really problematic, because you really are disappearing people, you are creating the grounds for grievance in fact.
Svetlana: Right. And what does “don’t give a platform to pure hate speech” mean? You know under US law there is no definition of hate speech, so direct incitement to violence is criminal, but racist speech is not criminalised. So what we’ve had in universities is conservative student groups inviting speakers, provocateurs like Milo Yiannopoulos or Richard Spencer who is a white supremacist – they’re people with bad ideas, no question about it – but what happens is that every time they invite such a speaker, they know that the larger student body is going to lash out in protest and they are going to look bad because they are going to be “against free speech.” So you have this baiting of the left and the left is taking the bait. What if you invite a racist speaker and nobody shows up, or five conservative students show up, what is going to happen?
Michael: Or they get adequately defeated in debate?
Svetlana: Or if there’s debate, they get adequately defeated. It’s giving them more credibility [to ban them]. It’s really disturbing because I work on free speech, and now you have these “free speech martyrs” that are very obnoxious figures, whereas don’t deplatform them, give them a platform and don’t go and listen, or ask them a question; they are mostly not that smart and the emptiness of their ideas is going to be revealed. But the more you ban them, the more you create them as mythological, Satanic masters of the universe; somehow you give them more of a stature by rising up as a whole student body and wanting them removed – and the same thing with The New Yorker. And that also creates a kind of fear within liberal institutions that you cannot write about certain topics, you cannot ask certain questions; there is a kind of puritan policing of discourse.
Michael: And this is particularly prevalent, weirdly enough, in academia.
Svetlana: In academia, in the art world. It’s funny that in society at large, these institutions are not dominant. What is dominant is big corporations, big money and Donald Trump, right? At the same time, you have these small enclaves of liberal power that are thinking that they have social power and they can police their own little enclaves – but they are powerless in society at large and when they are policing discourse so strictly, they are isolating themselves and becoming more and more little marginal liberal enclaves. So I am very sympathetic to the concept of social justice, I think the tactics that are deployed now by many people that are interested in social justice and achieving social justice through censorship, I think these are very misguided because censorship has never helped the cause of social justice. Historically, you look: censorship has always helped those in power and those in power – not in academia, but in society at large – are not the people that we want to be imposing censorship. So that perspective is somehow lacking, and I find that a lot of times that even asking the questions in the US, you can be unfriended on Facebook. I mean I have spoken to people within the cultural sphere and they are liberal, left people and they are concerned because you get absolutely mob-attacked if you express a dissident thought on social media, you get professionally ostracised, you get personally ostracised.
Michael: It’s a kangaroo-court mentality.
Svetlana: Yeah, and a kind of dogmatic mentality where you have to be very pure, very politically correct otherwise you’re out – and there’s fear. And fear not so much of the political other, who we don’t even talk to, but fear of your friends and peers. So not only is the public sphere fractured because left and right don’t talk to each other, within the left there are many fractures; the right, however [laughs], have consolidated and they’re very different, you have fiscal conservatives, you have the Tea Party, you have the religious right, they’re absolutely different people, but they are creating alliances for power. And I think they should be critical of Trump; a lot of them dislike Trump but Trump is their way to be in power. And they have their interests, they have their financial interests or whatever and he’s responding to some interests of theirs so they consolidate in the name of getting power. The left is fracturing and the more they are gaining power in academia and liberal institutions, the less they have broad social power in society at large because a lot of people live within those institutions – they don’t see beyond them.
Michael: OK, you’ve stressed that your bailiwick is the USA, but to what extent do you say that the Trump phenomenon and associated things like the Tea Party have been enablers of these types of phenomena elsewhere in the world, either because of the actual imperialist power of the USA or because of its symbolic significance?
Svetlana: Well I think what’s happening in Europe is very much in parallel, I mean Poland, Hungary, you know, you have right-wing populisms everywhere.
Michael: South Africa too; we’re all part of a broader process.
Svetlana: Exactly, and Trumpism is a symptom as is everything else; the basis of this is economic. You look back into the 21st Century and there’s economic discontent, so you have societies that are extremely economically polarised, you had a 2008 crisis that affected people in the middle class that lost a lot – and then the richest parts of society recovered, the stock market did very well, banks are doing very well. You also have a sort of mobile cultural intelligentsia in the West and young people with education and resources who can move and for whom this kind of new economy, the information economy is good. But you also have people who have been left over, who have lost jobs in manufacturing, who have lost security, in the US have lost their houses (the housing crisis), so these people have been left behind.
Michael: You see photographs out of cities like Detroit that look like post-apocalyptic wastelands.
Svetlana: Right. And artists are moving in there, so the liberal cultural elite could make galleries, but what of people who have lost jobs in manufacturing, how will they recover? So they’re ripe for populists like Bannon who had the ideology – and listening to Steve Bannon, which I find interesting, is that he precisely identifies that, identifies the fact that corporations, with the recent tax cuts that Trump did, they’re tax cuts for corporations. You’ve had the most radical economic polarisation of society that you’ve ever had, it’s more than the early 20th Century, so Bannon identified that and the Trump campaign identified the disaffection, and then provided what to me is the wrong answer, which is “let’s stop those immigrants; they’re taking our jobs,” which is bullshit!
Michael: A diversionary tactic.
Svetlana: But there is this correct identification of people’s discontent and this is happening in Europe, that’s happening everywhere, it happened with Brexit; the people who are left over by new economies who have been hurt by crisis but never recovered and they’re angry and they need to direct that anger and they need someone to tell them “you’re a person of value and we will help you recover – at the expense of some other group,” and this some other group that is being pushed forward in the US is immigrants, and in Europe as well. And the rhetoric of hatred is really taking hold because of the existing social anger, which is exploited by populists. So to me it may be the economic model that the US has; I don’t think Trump can accomplish such a revolution of international politics. It is the logic of neoliberal capitalism and the government handling of the economic crisis in which the government bailed out the banks, gave hand-outs to corporations, and the cost was borne by the middle class which is now not a middle class anymore. So this is the environment.
Michael: So what is the role of the arts in all of this? It’s interesting that you talk about gentrification in Detroit because Hassan stressed this quite strongly in his talk and in our interview of how often artists became the thin end of the wedge in pushing marginal people even further into the margins.
Svetlana: We have much activism around gentrification and art galleries in the US. Gentrification is a real phenomenon, but there are two issues and one is first of all it’s not really galleries that are pushing people out, but the big developers, and we have issues in Chinatown where big developers are buying buildings, they’re kicking tenants out and they’re re-renting for a lot more money. The galleries actually provide some value to the community: in LA, there’s a lot of controversy in Boyle Heights which is this area that’s being gentrified; some of the galleries that were kicked out were first-time galleries showing works by Hispanic artists, not the blue-chip galleries that have space everywhere. There are political movements that are sometimes blunt instruments and this is one issue, gentrification, who do you go after? It’s easy to go after the galleries because if you are an arts activist the galleries listen to you – but do you go after the developers? How do you go after the developers? It’s harder to go after the developers, but then what’s the effect you’d have if you just go after the galleries? You remove a gallery; gentrification is still going on. I beg to see the case where kicking out a gallery has stopped gentrification. And the other issue is do we really want to keep the slums? Don’t you want development, don’t you want infrastructure? Do you want people to live in cockroach-filled apartments? There’s this big debate right now on Amazon coming into Queens. So to me, what is your vision, what do you want done? And nobody has stopped gentrification so far. The big problem with gentrification is clearly that artists and people are kicked out after a while.
Michael: This has happened downtown Johannesburg where the city created a Cultural Precinct and the first move was to relocate the homeless people and kick out the artists who actually lived there and now create this vacuous Cultural Precinct that is denuded of its culture [laughs].
Svetlana: Absolutely, but I think the thing is not to stop development but to create, to advocate to create affordable long-term spaces for artists; make arts organisations or whatever change ownership and create mechanisms where you protect groups that are there and they’re the ones that give life to the neighbourhood. And that’s very doable because you’re otherwise protesting against something that will happen, you’re not going to stop it by your protesting in the street – but you can lobby. And this happens here and there: there’s an area being gentrified and you buy a building from the city and you have a gallery and working spaces for artists, and live/work spaces for artists, so there are all these energies of protest and activism and I think they could be more smartly deployed to not stop a process that will happen but to…
Michael: Make sure it’s integrated into the actual community.
Svetlana: So don’t kick out the galleries, but push the galleries to have a permanent space for artists, there are any ways to do it. But that is something that you can do that probably cities will be amenable to doing because it raises the value – but you also get something for it and you are employing your activist energy in a positive way. I just did a book about curators negotiating difficult content which is called Smart Tactics; I think you need to employ smart tactics rather than this strategy of just saying “no!” You need to deploy a strategy that has a chance of success.
Michael: So tell me a little about hope.
Svetlana: Oh, hope? I think hope is dependent on having a vision. What do we want? A lot of what we’re thinking is what do we not want, and I think the way Safe Havens is structured this time is good because we are saying “what are our goals; what can we do?” It’s more pragmatic because otherwise we can always have a litany of complaints; we can say this is not working and that is not working and the world is going to hell – fine, the world has always been going to hell – but where do you want to be? There are all these protests against artworks in American museums, so there is an artwork and it bothers you, so what would happen if the museums take down all the artworks that bother you, how much better will society be? I mean, what is your vision? Sometimes left activism is kind of feel-good with a short-term goal, but long-term, where do you want to be and what do you want that pre-gentrification run-down neighbourhood to look like? Do you want it to still look run-down? Probably not; you just want it to be affordable for the people that live there.
Michael: And for it to be a viable community.
Svetlana: Yeah. Come here, do development, but do it in a way that preserves the people here – and then you’ll have much more of a chance to be heard than when you are just saying “no, keep development out.”