Disagreement is not censorship

This post is my response to Kevin Coval’s Huffington Post article on being “censored” by J Street.


Dear Kevin,

I love and respect you and your work, but I think on this issue you may have missed the mark. Overall, you and I share relatively similar political goals, but I think that this sort of rhetoric does more harm than good.

First off, censorship is clearly inexcusable (including the events you mention in your ‘burning books’ poem). Political black-listing is worse. But the loss of distinction between violence, political threat, and legitimate disagreement is arguably just as dangerous. You were not arrested or prosecuted for your views, nor were you silenced or otherwise disenfranchised. You were simply disinvited from speaking at an event whose hosts disagreed with your rhetoric. Moreover, no attack was made on your freedom of speech or access to public discourse. If someone at J Street had misguidedly invited Glenn Beck to speak, and then realized that he rages far to the right of their political comfort zone, no one would cry McCarthyism or censorship at his removal from the program. What you are doing here is co-opting the historical oppression of censored, jailed and ruined leftist artists and intellectuals in an internal argument about the relative political slant of modern reform Jewish movements. You want movement to move to the left. The movement has other plans. This kind of “fight me and you fight justice” equivalence argument is a slippery slope. An intellectual should recognize his position on a spectrum of thought. The legitimacy of disagreement is a cornerstone of our democracy, even if that disagreement comes from conservatives. It was, after all, the “leftist” communist party in China and the Soviet Union that forced its citizens to sit through endless speeches, rallies and “cultural programs.” They insisted on installing their own values into every shred of political and artistic discourse. In our modern democracy, nobody has to listen to us if they don’t want to.

In terms of the poetry, I’ve seen Josh’s poem, and frankly I don’t get much out of it. With statements like “Ann Frank is Matthew Shepherd” and “Guantanamo is Auschwitz”, he is apparently trying to put modern events in a historical context that endows him (and all of us) with an agency for creating change. Unfortunately, his unsupported equivalences paint each historical injustice with such a coarse brush that it is impossible to get any real clarity out of his poem. Was Matthew Shepherd the victim of his own government’s massive industrial genocide campaign? Are we trying to wipe out all Muslims from this planet by gassing them at Guantanamo? Instead of complicating the discourse by examining the truth up close, he is oversimplifying the past. Instead of holding up the events of the day and turning them in the light like a jeweler inspecting all facets of a stone, he is smashing them with the hammer of equivalence; “Look, its all just carbon anyway.” If I were head of an organization dedicated to educating and empowering American jewery, I would steer clear of such cheap similes myself.

With love, Jon


~ by jonlib on October 22, 2009.

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