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Clearly, This Is My Careerism Talking


There are two rather obvious flaws Freddie deBoer’s critique of Elias Isquith. Here’s his first argument:

The dominance of personal branding and cultural signalling over political theory means that liberal attitudes change very rapidly and then congeal into a consensus that is supposedly so obviously correct that it does not need defending. In the past year, liberalism as an elite social phenomenon has abandoned first rights of the accused and second the right to free expression. The Jameis Winston and Woody Allen sexual assault cases saw the rise of resistance to any discussion whatsoever of due process and rights of the accused…

Omitted, of course, it a cite of a single liberal asserting that Woody Allen or Jameis Winston should be denied their full due process rights. The reason for this is that, however ambitious they might be, such liberals don’t exist. Liberals certainly have noted that the investigation into the charges against Winston was a disgraceful botch saturated with sexism and star-athlete privilege. But needless to say arguing that credible sexual assault accusations should be taken seriously by the authorities does not reflect “resistance to any discussion whatsoever of due process and rights of the accused.” Similarly, there are certainly liberals who believe that Dylan Farrow is more likely to be telling the truth than not. This position might be right, or it might be wrong. But either way, it doesn’t reflect any hostility to “due process and rights of the accused.” Private individuals making judgments about whether people are factually guilty of particular offenses is neither here nor there in terms of their belief in due process rights. When Matt Taibbi says that Goldman Sachs violated the law, he’s not coming out against due process even if the Department of Justice doesn’t charge them. “O.J. Simpson should be tried again for murder” reflects hostility to due process and the rights of the accused. “O.J. Simpson almost certainly killed Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman” does not. deBoer’s position to the contrary is so obviously absurd I don’t believe that even he believes it.

The second argument is similarly problematic:

Similarly, the Brandon Eich situation, and now the Donald Sterling fiasco, have prompted this social cohort to change liberalism such that its traditional staunch defense of free speech rights has become instead an assumed disgust with those who talk about free speech rights at all.

Omitted here is the cite to any major liberal political theorist arguing that free speech means that private individuals have the right to retain positions of immense privilege irrespective of what they say. Again, the reason for this omission is that they don’t exist. To reiterate, I agree that properly conceived “free speech” means more than simply protection against government sanction. It is equally obvious the this right cannot be absolute — if I suddenly decided that Sam Alito was actually right about everything, the American Prospect would not

be violating my free speech rights if it told me my freelance services would no longer be required. Applying free speech rights to the workplace requires attention to context, consideration of power relations, and so on. (deBoer, conversely, reflects the kind of arid formalism, innocent of power relations, that liberals are often accused of believing, sometimes accurately, sometimes not.) When an ordinary worker gets fired solely for expressing political views contrary to the views of their boss, this is problematic because in large the consequences of the sanction are so devastating. Trying to evaluate when somebody losing their job over political speech requires an analysis of contextual factors — the power of the person in question, whether they can fairly be said to speak for an organization, whether they have supervisory authority, the effect of losing a given position on one’s practical life choices, etc. Since a bright-line rule that “nobody can ever be fired for expressing political views under any circumstances” is obviously unworkable, it requires judgment.

We’ve been though this, but it strikes me as obvious that Eich and especially Sterling are both entirely easy cases. With Eich, the puzzle has always been who should have done anything differently; there wasn’t even any organized pressure from liberals that wouldn’t have presented any real threat to “free speech” in the first place, and if a board of a non-profit doesn’t want someone who contributed to a disgraceful campaign to strip people of their civil rights and stands by it years later to head the organization, I don’t see what the problem is. With Sterling, applying any reasonable criteria leads immediately to the conclusion that the NBA is well within its rights and not threatening free speech. In particular, let’s consider the issue of sanctions. Leaving aside the fine that to Sterling is the equivalent to about a hundredth of a cent to an ordinary person, what is Sterling’s punishment, exactly? He might be forced…to sell his team. Which will hand him a billion+ dollar profit in spite of his consistent ineptitude because of the lavishly taxpayer-subsidized cartel he bought into. If everyone who got fired for expressing a political view left with a billion-dollar golden parachute, I’d be happy to take a fully libertarian position and allow bosses to do what they wilt. (While I might disagree on the merits, I also don’t think a CEO being forced out for their support for abortion rights is a “free speech” issue, and that goes triple if it ends up in a massive windfall for the deposed CEO.) Anyway, the “free speech” argument against the NBA being able to do anything about having a team built primarily in the labor of African-Americans being owned by a racist slumlord is specious in the extreme.

It’s possible that everyone disagrees with Freddie about this because they’re arguing in bad faith chasing the massive dumptrucks of money driven up to the home of every liberal freelancer. But he may also wish to consider that people may disagree with him because his definitions of liberalism in this case are both unique and transparently untenable.

…if I may be permitted to highlight excellent comments Edroso style again, this from ReflectedSky is very well-put:

This decision was capitalism in action. Very wealthy men wanted to protect their economic interests and corporate brands. They did something they were able to do via the bylaws of the entity that they all, including Sterling, had agreed to when they bought into the league. What this has to do with liberalism is beyond me, unless liberals are expected to demand that highly skilled black men who have been directly insulted and shamed by their employer — who they do not have the freedom to elect to not work for, for the most part, for years to come — are required to swallow their rage and instruct their fans (many of whom are African American or other POC) to give this man who has insulted all of them their money. What would be the freedom argument in favor of that?

That doesn’t even begin address the reality of Sterling as a slum lord, and his other, non-speech related racist behavior.

He had freedom of speech. He exercised it. The players and fans also have freedom of speech. They exercised it. The men who own the teams made a market-based decision allowed by their legal organizing documents, to which Sterling was a voluntary participant. So the point here is?

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