February 3, 2021

In Letters To Finkelstein


On 20 January 2021, I announced this contest:

Below are the submissions, followed by the name of the lucky winner.  I will also include the Judge’s comments:

#1. P. Eccles
The screening of the film, “The Birth of a Nation”, caused a sensation in the USA. It swept crowds into a frenzy of violence against black people, including over a hundred lynchings in 1915. It would therefore seem logical that we should oppose its screening, and that the government ought to repress it.
I am for freedom of speech and freedom of expression, even for fascists and liars. I am of the belief that we should not simply “cancel” people we don’t agree with.
On the other hand, sometimes attempts to repress a movement or idea will actually end up amplifying that message instead. People are generally suspicious of the government trying to interfere in their business, and “define truth”, and with good reason.
I think the important test in this case is, did it constitute an incitement to violence? And I think, having reviewed the facts about the film, that most people would agree it probably does constitute such an incitement.
Now the designation “incitement to violence” is a subjective one, I’ll grant. But what is not subjective is the wave of violence which followed the screening of the film. The fact that the film is a fine piece of art, technically impressive and ahead of it’s time and has a relatively innocent first half, make it even more insidious. Reading some of the reactions of audiences at the time is quite telling. They were often in tears, or overwhelmed with emotion. At one screening an audience member actually fired his gun at the screen to save a damsel in distress(!)
It is my view that, even if freedom of expression arguments could have prevailed prior to the screening, the events which occurred afterward should have sufficed for the federal government to intervene. Once people actually start being killed as a result of the screening of a film, there has to be an intervention.

#2 M. Shaikh
I agree with the proposition that free speech and free expression lie at the foundation of a free society. Yet I assert that Du Bois was perfectly within his rights to call for the banning of Birth of a Nation.The United States in the early twentieth century was not a free society, especially for African-Americans and most especially for those living in the South where a reign of terror was enforced by white vigilantes with the active connivance of the police and state governments.
Under such circumstances, upholding the right of cinemas to screen Birth of a Nation as a manifestation of American free speech is comparable to Joseph Goebbels citing the free circulation of Der Stürmer as proof of the Third Reich’s commitment to a free media.
“Freedom” sang Billy Bragg, “is merely privilege extended unless enjoyed by one and all.” As Du Bois noted, there was no possibility that the victims of white terrorism could mount a reply to Birth of a Nation, not only because they lacked the resources to produce their own films, but because there was no freedom of speech for Afro-Americans in the South.Naturally, President Wilson dismissed calls to ban the film because he was an outspoken white supremacist. But for liberals to side with him against a disenfranchised underclass in the name of free speech is an unforgivable betrayal of the ideals they claim to profess.
#3 A. Abbasi
When the power of the state extends, the liberties of individuals and society shrinks. This principle alone opposes any suppression of speech and expression. Du Bois, however, argued that since The Birth of a Nation spread false narrative, which “encouraged” lynchings, physical harm outweighs the principle. This claim needs to be evaluated, not only against the principles of liberty, but also on the account of political implications.  
There are grounds to suppress speech if the speech ’causes’ violence. But, how do we prove the causal relationship between speech and ensuing violence? In the example cited by Du Bois, the movie may have played a role, “encouraged” as Du Bois says, but it is difficult to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that it was the movie, not prevalent racial hatred in the society, that ’caused’ the lynchings. 
Even if the claim is accepted that the movie ’caused’ lynchings, even then we should be careful before suppressing speech for the fear of unintended consequences. What if censorship of speech intensified anger and angst, resulting in increase in violence. This is acknowledged by Du Bois. Or, when censorship creates a precedent to suppress the wailing victims and the accursed plaintiffs.  
Du Bois is absolutely correct, however, that there cannot be freedom without equality. For financial constraints and “scarcity of appropriate artistic talent”, counter arguments against the movie were not possible then, but they are possible now. On top, now no movie or speech in the US can “encourage” lynchings. Because, now the US is a different, and relatively more equal, country than it was a century ago. This is the result of popular movements, which benefited from civil and social liberties. Even though there can be no freedom without equality, the fight for equality begins, not with state censorship, but with civil liberties.  
#4 K. Bloemker
I don’t know Blacks at the time of Du Bois’s writing. Nor do I know the Whites at the time. I can’t make an ex-post judgement by today’s standards on what Du Bois says.
As a general rule I concur with what Justice Anthony Kennedy said: “the remedy for speech that is false is speech that is true.”
But what was considered false speech and what true speech – concerning Blacks – in America 1915 ? – So I’m at a loss to say whether Du Bois is right or wrong.
#5 Zane Abdulkarim
Do the circumstances Du Bois describes in the passage justify the endeavor to violate free expression? To defend this claim, Du Bois asserts that “Without doubt the increase of lynching in 1915 and later was directly encouraged by this film.” It is plausible that Du Bois was a man possessing considerable political sagacity. Nevertheless, in making this assertion he oversteps to my mind the limit of what can be apprehended with any degree of certainty: is it really beyond doubt that the screening of a single film directly caused a national spike in racist violence? It might instead be true that the appearance of the film and the violence that followed were symptoms of a deeper process unfolding in US society at the time. It is difficult to pin down exactly where the truth lies in such matters.  
Assuming it was clear in advance that the film’s screening was going to lead to racist violence, and thus trying to stop this screening might be morally justified as a means of preventing this outcome, one might still question the tactical wisdom of doing so. Du Bois himself writes: “We did what we could to stop its showing and thereby probably succeeded in advertising it even beyond its admittedly notable merits.” This recalls an important lesson about choice of tactics: even apparently worthy ones may, and often do, have the opposite of the desired effect. That this happened in this case is not altogether surprising: attempts to forcibly suppress expression often backfire. The news of the suppression or attempted suppression travels through the air, raising public curiosity in the views expressed to an unnatural pitch, swelling their audience beyond the size to which it would have grown in virtue of their native attributes, and by dint of a perverse instinct of the human mind with which we are lately familiar, making them more rather than less likely to be favorably received. 
Next we can consider Du Bois’s statement: “We had to ask liberals to oppose freedom of art and expression, and it was senseless for them to reply: ‘Use this art in your own defense .The cost of picture making and the scarcity of appropriate artistic talent made any such immediate answer beyond question.” This assumes that the best way, and really only tolerably effective way, to counteract the effects of a film on the public is with another film. Is this true? What if the NAACP instead staged public demonstrations outside of the theaters where the films were being shown, and handed out pamphlets with contents effectively exposing the film’s sordid lies and moral bankruptcy? And combined these acts with a vigorous media campaign doing the same? It’s certainly conceivable that such a combination of acts might have proven to be a potent antidote. 
Let me close with some general remarks about freedom of expression. Freedom of expression is a right of the utmost importance, and its violation is not to be undertaken lightly, particularly when this would be public, for then one has to worry about helping to contribute to the collapse of an essential right, the presence of which in society protects the expression of not only noxious falsehoods but also vital truths. Noxious falsehoods may slow moral progress, but they fail to terminate it. On the other hand, so long as vital truths have an open field in which to roam freely, in time social enlightenment must increase beyond the limit that renders a measure of progress inevitable, as a critical number of people, drawing on the moral courage flowing from their mature understanding, refuse finally to tolerate some hidebound and oppressive institution which has long lingered in their midst and poisoned the social atmosphere.  
#6 R. Hardaway
DuBois’ problem is not one of expression, but of material and economic inequality. In such circumstances, relying on State censorship is rarely if ever effective; in Dubois’ case, I assume he would have to appeal to the Wilson Administration to censor the film – the same administration that exhibited _Birth of a Nation_ in the White House. One can easily imagine the result of that. And this in fact reveals the problem of State censorship, which only effectively occurs when it benefits the State.
It is a truism that history is written by the victors. And that’s true whether that history constitutes movies, plays, novels, music, art, or even written histories. Therefore, the solution to Dubois’ problem can only come in the form of material restitution. It’s often said that power never concedes anything without a demand. But the truth is that power never concedes anything without a threat. So, the response to Birth of a Nation, or Gone With the Wind, or Zero Dark Thirty, is the same: we have to organize around a set of simple tactics that economically empower and structure our cause. This is true at an individual and organizational level, and both are equally important. Maybe not obvious at first, DuBois’ complaints about his own remuneration, written elsewhere perhaps, actually reveal the crux of this problem.
It is a peculiar fact that for all the ink spilled on Marxism, Communism, alienation etc., there is practically nothing published that would help a waitress, or adjunct professor, or agriculture worker unionize their place of work. Much less is even said about how all these groups of people might work together, on behalf of each other. For me, this is the only relevant topic Leftists should be focused on in 2021.
#7 R. Novakovic
With my lived experience as a filmmaker and activist, I believe that the dichotomy presented between making a high-budget narrative film of your own to counter Griffith’s and no platforming is a false one.
Of course the oppressed often do not have the means of production to match the lies of the hegemony. But we have the reality of lived experience, we have data and we have personal and bodily integrity. It is these that I would present on stage, speaking over Griffith’s silent film or with the lights on between projections of carefully chosen scenes (and if we couldn’t rent or steal the film, a few still frames from it would do).

Blacks and Whites would comment on the images together, how and why they were made, on the source novel, on actual data of Black criminality, on the realities of the Klan, presenting the lived experience of White
terror and solidarity across race lines.
How shocking it will be to see real Black faces after the blackface, speaking their truth to Hollywood’s power, with books, with songs, with reason, emotion and wit. 
The Judge Speaks: Baroness D. Maccoby 
After reading them through carefully, I am still in favour of number 5. To try to sum up my reasons: 6 seems to me to focus too much on the present situation, seeing the problem too much in terms of nowadays rather than 1915. I like 7 a lot, with its suggestion of a stage performance with blacks and whites together presenting their positive message; but could a stage performance in a theatre really offset the effect of a powerful film? And the entry doesn’t really address the central moral dilemma. I have a lot of sympathy with 4, with the conclusion “I am at a loss to say whether Du Bois is right or wrong” — I don’t think there is a clear answer — but all the same I think the winning entry needs to come down on one side or the other. I think 1 and 2 present a compelling case for censorship in this particular instance, since the film can justifiably be seen as an incitement to violence. But 3 and 5 put forward a more complex position, pointing out that Du Bois himself acknowledges that the failed attempt at censorship (as 6 points out, it could never have succeeded) only gave the film more publicity, thus probably making the racist violence worse. 3 and 5 are very similar in their arguments; thus both include the convincing point that we can’t know for sure whether this one film led to the increase in lynchings.  But I think 5 just about has the edge, because of the clarity with which the author points out that “Assuming it was clear in advance that the film’s screening was going to lead to racist violence, and thus trying to stop this screening might be morally justified as a means of preventing this outcome, one might still question the tactical wisdom of doing so.” This is sharper than the comment in 3 about the danger of “unintended consequences”. So on the whole, I have decided to vote for number 5, though I have found this judging process very difficult. PS: I also like the last para of number 5 a lot — number 3 makes the same point in its last para, but 5’s last para is more expressive, with its comments about “noxious falsehoods” versus “vital truths” and the need for “vital truths” to “have an open field in which to roam freely”. 
Zane Abdulkarim should email me for the prize money.–NGF