The firing of Marc Lamont Hill demonstrates how the Right does not support free speech as much as it claims to.
Temple University professor Marc Lamont Hill was fired from CNN as a commentator last Thursday after some right-wing advocates for Israel objected to a speech he gave at the U.N on the previous day defending the rights of Palestinians.
Hill gave his speech for the U.N. Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People, commemorating the International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian people. In it, he described the worsening conditions of the Palestinians and the increasing rightward turn of the Israeli government with it operating an apartheid regime and engaging in “settler colonialism” against the Palestinians. In the final part of his speech he called for a “free Palestine from the river to the sea.”
Immediately, the pro-Israeli right-wing outrage machine got its engines running as it instantly labelled Hill an anti-semite, a “Hamas supporter” and accusing him of “hate speech” for using the phrase “from the river to the sea”. Seth Mandel implied in a series of tweets that Hill’s use of this phrase was a “plea for another Jewish genocide”. The quasi-articulate, pseudo-intellectual Ben Shapiro, who has made racist statements about Arabs in the past, said CNN was right to fire Hill, and that Hill’s speech was a case of “open anti-semitism”.
There is a tinge of irony to this as some of the pro-Israeli Right who called for Hill to be fired and celebrated it in other contexts like to position themselves as hardened champions of free speech and the ‘marketplace of ideas’ against outrage mobs and internet call-out culture. Yet, in this instance, they were the very outrage mob that they condemn. Seth Mandel previously had denounced such “mobs,” angrily objecting, when Disney recently fired director James Gunn for provocative Twitter remarks about paedophilia. Mandel also denounced the “internet outrage machine” for encouraging the removal of a column by Daniella Greenbaum by Business Insider that many found to be transphobic.
There are few people who deserve more contempt and derision than free speech fraudsters. Hypocrites pretend to support free speech and rail against attempts by “internet mobs” to get people fired whose views they disagree with, only to flip sides when it comes to those whose views one disagrees with their own. Forgive the cliche — at times like this they are necessary — but the real test for the defence of free expression is not for views with which you agree, but for views you disagree with, and may even despise.
I am not exactly Marc Lamont Hill’s biggest fan. He can be too much of a ‘race man’ for my taste, and his past soft apologia for the leader of the racist Nation of Islam cult Louis Farrakhan is rather icky — and is obviously going to be used by his critics as evidence of his alleged anti-semitism. I think he could have been a little more delicate with how he used the phrase “from the river to the sea” at the end of this speech. While in context there was nothing wrong with how he used, he and his co-thinkers need to be more attuned to the fact that some people use that phrase in a very different way than he is using it. To chauvinists and religious nihilists, freeing Palestine from the river to the sea really does mean ‘driving Jews into the sea’ and upholding the racist notion that no Jew has a right whatsoever to have a presence in Palestine.
However, the accusations hurled against him that he is an anti-semite and an advocate of genocide are obviously ludicrous. It is an offence against the intellect and a libel against reason almost to the point of hilarity. One almost begins to think whether it is worthy dignifying this nonsensical accusation of him advocating another Shoah with a response. Only someone who is tendentious and acting in bad faith could possibly interpret the last part of his speech as anti-semitic and advocating genocide.
CNN was absolutely cowardly in giving in to the pressure to fire him. It legitimises a very censorious mentality and sets a dangerous precedent that will embolden the effort, by some, to cast critics of the state of Israel as anti-semites, which neither helps the cause of justice in Israel/Palestine nor the genuine fight against anti-semitism (including “left” forms of it). Now, Hill’s job at Temple University is also under threat and it is disgusting that it has gotten to the point where this possibility is considered. We cannot allow right-wing trolls or hard Zionists to narrow the frame of ‘legitimate’ discussion on Israel/Palestine on their own terms where lines get blurred and slight deviations can get you labelled an anti-semite. Even neglected traditions of Zionism as espoused by Hannah Arendt, Noam Chomsky and Albert Einstein would now be labelled “anti-Zionist”, hence on dangerous territory, because they believed in the idea of a national home for Jews, not a Jewish nation-state as Israel is now (a subtle distinction mainstream Zionism has always blurred).
What Marc Lamont Hill’s case reveals is that the right can be just as bad as the ‘politically correct’ Left they so like to criticise when it comes to attempting to hound people off the public sphere because they say something ‘offensive’. Don’t buy this nonsense that the right stands for free speech. It is a duplicitous charade you would do well to reject. It also reveals the need to resist this corrosive climate that harms free speech and open political discourse where if someone says something that is perceived to fall out of ‘permissible’ discourse it is not enough for them to simply be wrong and you argue back. No, they must be made to pay, they must be dragged through the mud, they must practicably he hounded out of the public sphere, their life must be ruined.
We have a choice: we either have free political expression without punishment or penalisation or we allow cyber mobs with an agenda to draw the lines on what ‘permissible’ discourse is, laying the groundwork for endless warfare on deciding who gets to say what and who should be fired for expressing an opinion they don’t like. I know where I stand, but for this moment, despite my disagreements with him, I am in solidarity with Marc Lamont Hill.