Ilya Shapiro is a conservative thought leader who let slip his views in a tweet about persons of color, and has been ostracized and shuttled-off to far-right circles as a result. His visit at the University of Denver, Sturm College of Law, this week will continue the debate about where his speech belongs.
Is there a way to move beyond this gridlocked debate about speech, and how speaking can itself reflects power differentials? Can we drop the left v. right thing for a moment? Ilya’s views on race relations reveal much more about about him. Our focus on speaking during specific days and moments aside, he and the concentrations of wealth and power he represents – including their denial of the climate crisis – pose a clear threat to the freedom of future generations.
If we were going to look at harm to persons of color, that aspect of him is worse than his words.
Why? All of his speech and writings – especially his pro-birth advocacy under constitutional law – suggest that while he cloaks himself in the idea of freedom, he actually rejects its first necessary condition: That every child has a right to an ecosocial Fair Start in life, and that such a right overrides the property rights – here and now – of the interests Shapiro represents.
As explained in our letter to Dean Gerken at Yale Law School, Shapiro may not understand that concentrations of wealth and power – like the Supreme Court itself and fixed adherence to arbitrary standards he believes made Kentanji Brown Jackson a “lesser” choice – are themselves the product of a deeply unfair system of family planning that entrenched inequity, degraded democracy, and is destroying the ecologies future generations need to be free in a way that will kill millions.
His positions also reject animal rights, subjecting trillions of animals to suffering and death as the Plantationocene spreads across the planet.
Shapiro might be a target because his racist statement belies a willingness to oppress, and put many at risk, to benefit a few.
Is this changing the topic? Missing the idea of speech and power? Look at these sentences and see the pronouns that underlie them – that underlie all thoughts and claims, and then see the relations that underlie the creation of the people referred to by those pronouns. That is power.
True liberalism is concerned with relative self-determination/consent/choice, which would logically start with deontological population ethics, and a creation norm / first principle that would first limit the power others have over us, or where we would choose to be empowered in ways that do not disempower others. He rejects this, committing what is called the constitutive fallacy. His scholarship has risen to esteem not because it is true, but because its premises never threaten the most basic power establishment: Parents’ power over future children and nature, wealthy families’ power over poor families, the power of a coercive state over its people, etc.
Shapiro pretends to limit the power people have over one another, but ultimately embraces oppression and refuses to constitute free communities. He is a precon, ignoring the fact that freedom comes from objective values cabining subjectivity – something that must start in our creation.
If Shapiro were the target of a direct action perhaps the best reasons are not because he should not be allowed to speak. Perhaps he should. It is rather because he rejects the fundamental fairness and Rawlsian freedom that underlies the value of free speech – our first agreeing to first be in groups of free and equal people defined as such by their truly constitutive relations. Embracing that could save millions. Instead he chooses to protect concentrations of wealth and power built on oppression which could – were they today and by many means effective redistributed proportionally from him and his principles – be used to end it.