Andreas Önnerfors | 4 December 2019
In 1943, when students and staff at the University of Munich decided to release a series of anti-Nazi fliers and statements, crude and ahistorical analysis could accuse them of having acted as ‘useful fools’ for the Allied Forces. Whatever was directed against the terrorism of the Nazi regime, this logic would imply, would also fuel larger political currents, either intended or unintended. They could have remained silent. But is this an ethical position we should encourage?
Such a view upon political action neglects one of its basic foundations: trust in individuals to make up their own minds and their right to autonomous political action. If we would follow the rules of political complacency as proposed by Schaffer and in the Swedish debate in the media and in general, we would soon turn into silent witnesses as we are being stripped of these rights. But our silence will not protect us.
As anyone in the field of International Relations and Global Studies painfully is aware, the current authoritarian right-wing swing in global politics is a current or rather a wave of tsunami-like proportions in the international system affecting interactions both between states and sub-state actors. In this sense, it is no wonder that students and staff at Global Studies understand the broader ramifications of inviting an ambassador from a badly disguised version of Swedish national socialism to outline party strategies.
These strategies, on a global scale, include hijacking the concept of human rights, in particular, free speech, in order to disseminate ideas running contrary to the HR-system. The call for unlimited free speech is used as a battering ram to conquer the field of meta-politics, i.e. to conquer and exercise the privilege of interpretation in areas of culture and ideology. ‘Free Speech Warriors’ such as Ben Shapiro or Milo Yiannopoulos are consciously taking to campuses around the globe to defend an absurd version of free speech as a ‘positive right’ (in the definition of Isaiah Berlin): to say whatever you like without calculating or acknowledging its consequences. This, however, was never the intention of the French Declaration, the First Amendment or the Swedish Constitutional Law of Press Freedom. Listen carefully to the Free Speech Warriors; they seldom talk about negative rights, because their fantasy is states ruled with absolute political ideologies capable of infringing upon the rights of any member of the political community. They are not interested in discussing the limits of power since they are, in essence, totalitarian. Authoritarian regimes around the globe have picked up on this and are pushing for the dissemination and legitimisation of hate speech and ideological manipulation in a wrongly perceived defence of ‘free speech’ on academic campuses. Any politician has the right to say whatever s/he wants to say, but that does not imply a) that it cannot be legally challenged and b) that there is an inherent right to say it wherever you want. And, of course, as a consequence, whatever is said is still open to the analysis of its truth value and its ethical implications.
The issue of Richard Jomshof speaking at the University of Gothenburg is thus far more significant than a single seminar. The event, as such, is a part of a global radical right strategy to undermine the HR-regime. The ‘useful fools’ are those who haven’t analyzed this strategy before, who have provided it a stage at the University of Gothenburg and who are defending it so ardently now. Have you made a proper analysis of the consequences of your defense of so-called ‘free speech’?
I agree with Schaffer that the protest against Jomshof will fuel the pathetic perpetuum mobile of right-wing rhetoric through scandalisation – but is that a serious argument for not acting? Is keeping quiet when confronted with fundamentalist bullying a serious alternative? The initiative against the free SD-propaganda stunt has been met by at least one reference to the popular Finspång-meme. The Swedish radical right has floated a wet dream of future trials taking place in Finspång, trials at which purported national ‘traitors’ will be summarily sentenced to death and hanged on lamp-posts. When “Augusto Duterte” (the name of the Philippine president advocating and encouraging death squads) signed the petition as “professor of rotor avionics at the University of Finspång” s/he knew exactly what s/he was referencing— the execution of those who dare to speak against right-wing statements and actions. If these are the people supporting a supposed ‘right’ of SD to talk at our university, I think those arguing against the protest should choose sides.
To sum up:
The right to individual autonomous political action is not invalidated by potential future interpretation or potential future retribution. This should never deter us from action.
Complacency with the contemporary political discourse and the silence that would be the consequence will not protect us.
SD is the national branch of a contemporary global current in the international system – this is not about one lecture at one random university on one random occasion.
The issue of ‘free speech’ on university campuses is part of the meta-political strategy of the radical right on a global scale – to defend this right is to become a ‘useful fool’ by helping to legitimise this strategy.
That we feed the radical right perpetuum mobile of scandalization is no argument to keep quiet. On the contrary, the radical right will turn more and more radical in bullying us into silence and not stop short of fantasies and threats of physical or lethal violence.
Andreas Önnerfors is a senior lecturer at the Department of Literature, History of Ideas, and Religion, University of Gothenburg. He writes extensively on populism, human rights, and far-right extremism in the international system.