The American Left: Does It Have the Freedom of Sedition and the Right to Tyranny?
The American Left has pushed the United States to the brink of Constitutional crisis. Whether or not the left agrees with conservatives regarding the unconstitutionality of its preferred laws, the perception of millions of Americans is that the country is in political crisis. This is the state of the nation because what have widely been agreed-upon as the “rules of the game,” as implied in liberal democracy, are being replaced in piecemeal fashion by progressives whose primary agenda is to unfetter the government. Whether or not some of the left’s methods of transforming the country should be considered illegal or unconstitutional is the subject of this essay.
The New Left rationalizes its “fundamental transformation” of the nation, with the tacit endorsement of using extra-constitutional or even unconstitutional means, by appealing to a crusader-like mission to remedy the supposed structural injustices of our legal system. Among the left’s devices of transformation are the linguistic redefinition of terms like “freedom” and “equality,” thereby impacting public law, and the opportunistic and pragmatic employment of power.
For the purposes of this article’s argument, the left’s motives will be assumed to be laudable and its ends moral. What will be focused on are the means of the left’s value-transmission and whether or not specific practices should be considered illegal or unconstitutional. The same moral framework intrinsically applies to the right. Although current issues like the proposed crackdown on pornography are not addressed, like reasoning applies to all ideological and political content. But the focus will specifically be upon the New Left, since its agenda is currently driving the dominant political party.
The New Left has undertaken a programme of utilizing culture as a method of ingraining its values into a public highly resistant to the temptations of socialism. The institutions that animate public discourse – the schools, universities, entertainment and news media, the courts – are indisputably dominated by intellectuals whose sympathies tend toward the political left.
Yet is it the power of the left’s ideas that has led to the fait accompli? Or has it been the abuse of the state’s apparatus to effect political change that is the explanation for the left’s success in certain institutions? Successively answering these two questions leads us to the distinction between a reasonable difference of opinion and active, ongoing sedition.
Ideas in and of themselves cannot legally be treasonous, but they can be seditious. As one dictionary points out, “Sedition is any act, writing, speech, etc., directed unlawfully against state authority, the government, or constitution, or calculated to bring it into contempt or to incite others to hostility, ill will or disaffection; it does not amount to treason and therefore is not a capital offense.” Yet the same dictionary points out that sedition is the “incitement of discontent or rebellion against a government.” There is a tension in the American public’s view of what constitutes sedition and treason and this can be explained by our nation’s ideologically charged history.
In American history, the Founders were considered by the British to be seditious or even treasonous. They thus staked “their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honors” when they rebelled against the Crown. But by the end of the eighteenth century, the U.S. government had already passed the Alien and Sedition Acts, which suppressed political speech deemed to be a threat to the interests of the state. The Wilson administration continued this dark legacy of speech repression with its passage of the Espionage and Sedition Acts, which anarchists and socialists particularly rued. The subsequent Red Scare and the McCarthy era are commonly pointed to by left-leaning academics as exemplars of free speech suppression of the worst type. But scratch the surface of these cries of foul-play and one finds that the hard left actively suppresses speech whenever it is politically expedient or the conditions are ideologically favorable.
Although the practice should not be commended, the suppression of speech should not be illegal so long as the institution is privately owned or operated. But what crosses the line of amorality into immorality is the practice of an institution that receives federal funds or subsidies suppressing free speech or engaging in speech with political implications (a broader definition than is currently accepted). The reason this practice is morally indefensible is because the fruits of a citizen’s labor should not be confiscated or purposely diminished in value in order to finance speech that may run against an individual’s freedom of conscience. This runs directly contrary to any “open society.”
Thus, it is immoral for public schools, universities, or state-financed media outlets to receive federal funding and to promote a political ideology that is not in accordance with the agreed-upon rules of the game. It is immoral to promote coercive means, as implied in the advocacy of the use of state force, in order to impose one’s ideology on others or to silence one’s intellectual opposition. Yet this is precisely what the progressive left does on a routine basis in our schools and universities, as countless testimonials online avouch.
The intolerance of the “tolerant” left when it comes to ideology is rapidly becoming infamous. But whether or not those on the radical left vehemently disagree with those on the so-called right is not the point. Communists, socialists, fascists, racists, homophobes, xenophobes, Islamophobes have that right.
Neither is it the point that the content of the left’s speech may sometimes be seditious by nature, in the sense that progressives occasionally support unconstitutional means for imposing their contrarian morality upon others. This is sometimes the case.
The point is that the radical left’s behavior of suppressing the speech of its ideological opponents, whether in our public schools, colleges, universities, or publicly funded media ought to be illegal. This brings us to the next dilemma, which cuts at the core of free speech rights. The conclusion is the ultimate solution to the problem of public funds being utilized to promote sedition.
The New Left: Institutionalizing Sedition
The modern struggle over freedom of speech can be traced to the post-McCarthyite era, when many radicals reacted by insisting on absolute freedom of speech on our college and university campuses. The Berkeley Free Speech Movement (FSM) embodies such a movement. FSM leader Mario Savo put his aims such:
The First Amendment exists to protect consequential speech; First Amendment rights to advocacy come into question only when actions advocated are sufficiently limited in scope, and sufficiently threatening to the established powers. The action must be radical and possible: picket lines, boycotts, sit-ins, rent strikes. The Free Speech Movement demanded no more — nor less — than full First Amendment rights of advocacy on campus as well as off: that, therefore, only the courts have power to determine and punish abuses of freedom of speech. The Berkeley Division of the Academic Senate endorsed this position on December 8, 1964 by declaring against all University regulation of the content of speech or advocacy — by a vote of 824 to 115.
Yet as with many political matters with the left, the issue is not the issue. Professor of Sociology William Peterson at California-Berkeley wrote the following of the FSM, as cited in Ayn Rand’s essay “The Cashing In: The Student Rebellion” as found in The Return of the Primitive:
The first fact one must know about the Free Speech Movement is that it has little or nothing to do with free speech. If not free speech, what then is the issue? In fact, preposterous as this may seem, the real issue is the seizure of power.“
This is the real crux of the issue: whether or not the left is attempting to abuse and refuse public access to speech in order to promote its accrual of power. The aspects of public discourse known as political correctness, hate speech, free speech zones (implying one is not free to speak elsewhere), the Fairness Doctrine, FCC regulations, net neutrality rules, or other speech codes, when accompanied by the state subsidy, advocacy, or suppression of certain kinds of speech, should be struck down as unconstitutional. Likewise, peacable protest in a public forum should not be restricted.
Yet the left restricts speech whenever it is politically expedient or ideologically favorable to do so. One can trace the left’s usage of free speech as a shield to advocate seditious ideas to the movement’s hardline communist thinkers.
Many might think this is controversial statement or a bridge too far in argumentation. But ideological literacy and the ability to navigate the terrain of the abstract leads one to this conclusion. If one examines the history of ideas, one is not persuaded that the left’s switch from classical liberal assumptions to essentially socialist ones happened as if from out of nowhere. With that in mind, Lenin said:
“Freedom is a bourgeois prejudice. We repudiate all morality which proceeds from supernatural ideas or ideas which are outside the class conception. In our opinion, morality is entirely subordinate to the interests of the class war. Everything is moral which is necessary for the annihilation of the old exploiting order and for the uniting the proletariat. Our morality consists solely in close discipline and conscious warfare against the exploiters.”
When one recognizes that the American left rejects “bourgeois morality,” all of its idiosyncrasies and apparent hypocrisies when it comes to freedoms and rights become crystallized into an integrated understanding. And as the socialist Nikolai Bukharin wrote in the “The Programme of the World Revolution“:
The following is now clear to the workers and peasants. The party of the Communists not only allows no freedom (such as liberty of the press, speech, meetings, unions, etc.) for the bourgeois enemies of the people, but goes still further and demands of the government to be always ready to close the bourgeois press, to break up gatherings of the enemies of the people, to forbid their lying and libelling, and sowing panic; the party must mercilessly suppress all attempts of the bourgeoisie to return to power. And this is what is meant by dictatorship of the proletariat.
This is not to purport that all members of the left are communists or even recognize themselves as socialists. There are divisions on the left and major distinctions between de Tocqueville liberals, progressives, social democrats, democrat socialists, Fabian socialists, Maoists, Marxist-Leninists, and so on. But resorting again to the often-overlooked collection of essays written by Ayn Rand on the New Left, cited above, we can begin to appreciate the connection between socialist goals and “democratic” or “pragmatic” means:
The general tone of the reports was best expressed by a headline in the New York Times, March 15, 1965: “The New Student Left: Movement Represents Serious Activists in Drive for Changes.” What kind of changes? No specific answer was given in the almost full page story – just “changes.” Some of these activists, who liken their movement to a revolution, want to be called radicals. Most of them, however, prefer to be called “organizers.” Organizers of what? Of deprived people. For what? No answer. Just “organizers.”
Delving deeper into the background of two specific radicals, Saul Alinsky and William Ayers, both of import in terms of their association with the current president, we find indispensable linkages between what is widely considered on the right to be socialist or communist in thinking and the radical pragmatic terms of the father of community organizers Saul Alinsky.
Leftists hold up Alinsky as an innocuous toiler on behalf of the working class because they agree with his ethical ends and because he justifies their power lust. A passage from Jim Geraghty’s article “The Alinsky Administration” shows the left’s moral equivocation of New Left radicals with The Founding Fathers:
Alinsky sneered at those who would accept defeat rather than break their principles: “It’s true I might have trouble getting to sleep because it takes time to tuck those big, angelic, moral wings under the covers.” He assured his students that no one would remember their flip-flops, scoffing, “The judgment of history leans heavily on the outcome of success or failure; it spells the difference between the traitor and the patriotic hero. There can be no such thing as a successful traitor, for if one succeeds he becomes a founding father.” If you win, no one really cares how you did it.
Alinsky is right in that history is written by the victors. But he is wrong in that there is a moral equivalence between rebelling from tyranny and imposing tyranny. The Founders’ goal was to free men from political coercion and economic enslavement (see the “rough draught” of The Declaration of Independence, e.g.), not to utilize the state to economically restrict, manipulate, or exploit citizen-laborers or otherwise determine the winners and losers in the economy. Again, this cannot be justified as moral by any stretch of the imagination. These counter-revolutionary practices are nakedly tantamount to wielding sheer power and building for power. Another passage, from Ryan Lizza’s “Barack Obama’s Unlikely Political Education“:
The first and most fundamental lesson Obama learned was to reassess his understanding of power. Horwitt says that, when Alinsky would ask new students why they wanted to organize, they would invariably respond with selfless bromides about wanting to help others. Alinsky would then scream back at them that there was a one-word answer: “You want to organize for power!”
Years later in 2007, The New Republic’s Ryan Lizza interviewed then-senator Obama and found him still “at home talking Alinskian jargon about ‘agitation,'” and fondly recalling organizing workshops where he had learned Alinsky-esque concepts like “being predisposed to other people’s power.”
When confronted with public discussion about Obama’s verifiable Alinsky ties, leftists either shrug or deny them. Now, it is not illegal or seditious to community organize, per se, like our president did. It should not be purported that the concept of empowering the “underprivileged” is ethically wrong, either. But what is wrong is using the government as an aegis to deprive others of private property and to redistribute the expropriated funds to any political clients, whether they are members of an underclass or corporations. This political activity is not protected by The Constitution even by stretching the General Welfare Clause or the Fourteenth Amendment; and for good reason. The effects are particular in that these political activities harm certain parties and benefit others (including the redistributive party). So why does the left claim this activity is moral, and therefore, should be legal (and due to the deformation of the law, is legal)?
Implied in the left’s moral claims, to elucidate the ethical clash between left and right, is the concept best expressed in Michel Foucault’s “The Subject and Power, “A society without power relations can only be an abstraction.” Yet this supposed bit of sophisticated insight is a grotesquery. It does not harm another person in society for an individual to better himself, or to voluntarily collaborate with a group, or to labor for a commercial enterprise. Selling one’s labor is not akin to slavery because labor is a necessary aspect of human existence; and by extension, working within a capitalist society is in no way tantamount to slavery or is it morally relatable to the state’s coercive expropriation of the fruits of citizens’ labor, whether the state is democratically elected or not. Voluntary labor is not akin to slavery nor is it akin to indentured servitude; one can abstain from participating in the market. The fact that a person will starve or be relatively deprived without providing valued labor in a market does not make the capitalist system unjust, it makes the reality of being human what it is. One is not entitled to force another person to labor on one’s behalf; a disabled person is not able to labor and therefore, it is our nation’s shared value of protecting life that justifies the public policy of subsidizing that citizen’s living expenses.
Thus, bearing this legal and moral argument in mind, when conservatives are disturbed by the political activities of the community organizer Saul Alinsky or those of the unrepentant domestic terrorist and avowedly communist William Ayers, the latter being politically associated by his own admission with the president, we are not distraught about a mere difference of opinion. We are concerned about the left’s seditious activities, particularly when they are accompanied by state force. Whether or not one supports sedition is besides the point; it cannot be moral to impose one’s views on another using force. The entire concept of morality is gutted. We can now expand on the divergence in moral thinking between Constitutional conservatives and the hard left, and why the latter should be considered wrong on the issue of using state force to effect extra-constitutional and unconstitutional change.
The American left commonly dismiss “right-wing” arguments because they believe that power structures are inescapable (in other words, voluntarism is illusory because society irresistibly conditions men’s thinking). If there is so such thing as private property, a minority irrefutably controls something that others do not; this drives the left to seek out the “democratization” of the economy. They see this as a pragmatic means of supplying the means to meet the needs and wants of the masses.
What many on the right call the communist or socialist left is by all appearances an activist left animated by a stripped-bare, non-ideologically driven bent to resolve “issues.” Since power is inherently a part of politics, those on the left reason, there is no point quarreling about immoral means, but rather we should all be getting on with furthering moral ends. Those who get in the way are inherently wrong.
But it cannot be shirked off that one cannot remedy evil by committing or tolerating evil. One cannot remedy injustice by committing injustice. There is moral condemnation on the left of such judgmental thinking and certitude, which is labeled either simplistic or outright authoritarian. True, principles are simplistic; but their application to reality is infinitely complex and they constitute the difference between what is moral and immoral.
Our political system of liberal democracy is a political mechanism for allowing the settlement of ideological differences in a civil society. But when coercive power is utilized by one party over another, ideology is besides the point. There is an objective standard for morality, as Ayn Rand points out. Killing another person is not a matter of ideology, it is a matter of physically ending another person’s life. Stealing is not a matter of ideology, it is a matter of forcibly taking something that does not rightfully belong to a given person, all considerations about the production of the given product implied. There are objective ways to determine morality. Not everything is subjective or “ideological” in the dismissive “that’s just your opinion” sense.
So let us reframe the issue and address the key problem. The New Left program of cultual marxism creates a dilemma – is it legitimate to change the culture using legal, constitutional means in order to unconstitutionally change the political system?
The threshold of when sedition becomes treason is met when political power is used to violate individual rights, such as life, liberty, and property. Property rights are violated when wealth is confiscated and used for ways that go well beyond the protection of life and property. Liberty is restricted when laws are passed that impair one’s ability to express himself or to make his own living. Life is violated when a human being is allowed to be killed without legal repercussions or when people are sent to war against their will and without due process.
Censorship or violation of individual rights cannot be justified by appeal to ideology. There is no right to tyranny. There is no moral justification for de facto slavery. The underpinning argument for all civil rights legislation is that all men are created equal in a legalistic sense. Yet the left undercuts the foundational basis of our laws by advocating policies that tacitly imply freedom is enslavement and race is an insurmountable handicap. Thus, progressives undermine our legal system when they pass laws that undercut property rights and the freedom of association, which implies that men are not created equal and therefore need special state privileges.
The left’s remedy for perceived injustice is often more injustice. Instead of appealing to reason, the left resorts to force when it suppresses public speech. It often does so on the grounds of protecting minorities or the underprivileged or some other group. But the harm of a verbal or negative injustice is greatly outweighed by a coercive or positive one. One does not empower some citizens by impairing other citizens’ rights; one only establishes a condition of enfeebled dependency on the state.
Likewise, one cannot harm another by failing to perform a duty or service for another person. Such reasoning cannot be a basis for rights, properly understood. Men are not born slaves or indentured servants of other men, whether directly or via the aegis of government. One is not owed anything by virtue of merely existing.
Thus, there is no right to tyranny. There is freedom of sedition; yet there is no freedom to commit treason, as is entails establishing a dictatorship (nominally proletarian or otherwise). The weapons of words are allowable in the arena of political combat; but once those words are put onto paper as laws and undercut the Constitutionally protected individual rights of speech, association, religion, and self-defense, words can become treasonous.
The president accumulating power in the executive branch is a form of sedition, but it is not treason unless the legislative branch of government rules it so. The government is effectively usurping legislative power by shifting it into a fourth branch – a bureaucratic one, insulated from the legislative branch by a wall of separation, erected through uncompetitive federal labor laws. The market does not affect government as it does the rest of us (at least those of us the government does not rig the game for). But the legislative branch needs to counteract this assault on The Constitution or the legal recourse is lacking.
The president took an oath to preserve, protect, and defend The Constitution of the United States. Yet, the credentialed constitutional scholar complained that The Constitution says what the government cannot do to people, but it does not say what the government can do for people on their behalf. The president has the right to hold such seditious views. But the president does not have the right to commit treason by imposing his preferred brand of tyranny on fellow citizens through democratically elected office.
The solution to the problem of “political correctness” being used to erode Americans’ rights is to support the marketization of education and to oppose the federal funding or subsidization of any and all specific ideological or political content. The lynchpin institution is education. Re-establish it as an open forum for political ideas, and the restitution of classical liberal values and liberal democracy follows. This makes the difference between the public’s acceptance of the legitimacy of unconstitutional rule or rejection of it. On such a mission the nation’s fate as a free country or a socialist tyranny depends.