‘Free speech has never been freer’: Pankaj Mishra and Viet Thanh Nguyen in conversation

Pankaj Mishra: Black Lives Matter has forced a long overdue re-examination, from the perspectives of history’s long-term losers, of everything, not only entrenched political and economic inequities but also the imbalances of intellectual and artistic life. But there is a very long way to go. Your recent article on Spike Lee’s new film about African-American soldiers in Vietnam [Da 5 Bloods] was instructive in this regard. Here is a celebrated African American film-maker, the cinematic biographer of Malcolm X, succumbing to American cliches about the Vietnamese, and non-white foreigners in general.

I am reminded, too, of a prize-winning writer who recently claimed in a tweet that African Americans were “fighting for democracy abroad”. Contrast this casual euphemising of American violence in multiple countries to Muhammad Ali’s principled refusal to join the assault on Vietnam. Such naive Americanism is striking. In the past African American leaders and artists, from WEB Du Bois to Nina Simone, simply assumed solidarity with peoples elsewhere; they could see that the plights of the long-term victims of slave society and the societies despoiled by racial-ethnic supremacism were inseparably linked. What do you think happened to sunder that connection?

[…] I see the opposition to BLM’s demand for root-and-branch change as deeply entrenched, among liberals as well as white supremacists. Take, for instance, the insidious Harper’s letter, which complains about something usually called “cancel culture” in the midst of the most devastating global crisis since the second world war and massive protests against racism that you rightly call transformative.

You’ll remember that King identified the peddler of “moderation” as the bigger obstacle to social justice than white supremacists. The letter is an example of how elites rush to occupy the moral high ground when their authority as arbiters of intellectual and political life is challenged from both the left and the right. The letter was organised by Thomas Chatterton Williams, a writer much liked by self-proclaimed centrists and moderates as well as rightwingers for his belief that the “root problem in black life” in America is an “intangible smallness of mind” and “moral childishness and sheepish conformity”.

Shouting that “free speech” is in danger has become one way to promote yourself as a custodian of “classical liberalism”, and to accrue some moral and intellectual glamour. The problem for this rich, powerful, but deeply insecure minority is that free speech has never been freer for most people on this planet. More here.

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