Charlottesville, COVID, Trump and the War on Free Speech

Yves here. Anis Shivani, who as you will see investigated the alt-right and white supremacists early in the Trump administration, then and even more so now in his post below, was concerned that their rising visibility and presumed influence would be used to justify curbs on free speech. He describes how censorship is often seen, particularly by the young, as commendable, even thought it more often than not backfires.

On top of that, curbs on free speech have been used mainly to shore up the position of “liberal” elites. Accordingly, the campaign against dissenters has gone well beyond trying to shut down the voice of groups that promote violence to ones that merely engage in wrong-think, like Covid vaccine refusniks. Just yesterday, IM Doc wrote:

You may have heard that the American Board of Internal Medicine ( ABIM from now on ) has decided to go after Drs [Peter] McCollough and [Pierre] Kory – 2 of the more famous dissenters from the COVID narrative….

As a medical historian and teacher of history for decades, I would suggest to the AMA and I have already personally relayed to the 2 members of the ABIM that I know personally that medicine has a very long history of exactly the kind of behavior they are planning. I am very hard pressed to come up with a single instance where it has worked out well for those going on the witch hunt…

Medicine is science. And unfortunately, for these people who have decided science is their new God, it is never settled. Just in my career, I have seen aspirin, statins, hormone replecement therapy, and opioids used for years because it was “settled” science only to have that overturned with lots of experience and lots of very good research. I have also sat and listened to countless presentations and debates about these issues that were often very vehemently violent…But the verbal and public debate was critical for our understanding and how to proceed going forward. Those who have their finger on the scales thinking they “know the way” are often proved very very wrong.

So censoring or punishing these COVID dissenters in a very public way like this is exactly the wrong thing to be doing….A much more appropriate way to handle this is to get McCollough and Kory on one side and experts of your choice on the other – and let them have it out online or on national TV….Dr. Hotez and Dr Offitt and Dr. Wen, there will not be a better way to make these two look like boobs….WHAT DO YOU HAVE TO BE AFRAID OF?

Indeed, trying to silence critics makes the defenders of the mainstream look as if they are at best unwilling and at worst unable to defend their position. And it feeds suspicions that skeptics are being shut down precisely because they are on to something nefarious.

However, we also must point out that the ratcheting up of the war against free speech started before 2017. On November 23, 2016, the Washington Post ran a story that showcased a McCarthyite blacklist from a sketchy, faceless group with ties to Ukrainian neo-Nazis called PropOrNot. It was widely decried by journalists. For instance, Patrick Maines, president of The Media Institute, at The Hill called it  “….perhaps the shoddiest piece of feature writing since Rolling Stone published its blatantly false story about a campus rape at the University of Virginia.”

Yet the Post refused to retract or correct the story and instead put a bizarre disclaimer at the top, well after it ran, of the “We don’t necessarily stand by our work” sort, which elicited more ridicule from those who were still paying attention.

But it still did damage. For instance, we were attacked by CBS News Denver and only an outcry by our readers got the outlet to issue a correction. A developer included us unfavorably in a fake news browser extension; we went after him in a post and had to threaten to sue to get him to back down. And even earlier, Melissa Zimdars, a communication and media professor from Merrimack College in Massachusetts, had started compiling a list of “fake news” sites, as first reported by New York Magazine on November 16. It appears we got added to it thanks to PropOrNot. We were labeled “political” which seemed to be her lowest grade of dishonor.

As we wrote back then:

But as much as Naked Capitalism has been caught in the crosshairs of an unwarranted attack, it is critical to recognize what is really at stake. Since the first net neutrality fights of the early 2000s, major media enterprises and pipeline providers schemed to restrict the freedom of the Internet and re-assert the position of traditional brands and the few newer players who have managed to attain the scale and brand recognition to make them Too Big To Squash. Because smaller web publishers have had enough natural allies in these fights, these legislative threats to an open Internet have been successfully beaten back.

But the multi-fronted censorship efforts, particularly using Facebook bans and software tools to silence or discourage readership of sites that successfully challenge mainstream narratives, is a new, private sector-led initiative which is far more challenging to contest by virtue of lacking a clear focus for joint action. We hope that other publishers as well as users of information recognize how serious this threat is and take forceful countermeasures. This is not the time to be complacent.

Unfortunately, as this article shows, the bad guys are winning.

By Anis Shivani, whose recent political books include Why Did Trump Win?Confronting American Fascism, and A Radical Human Rights Solution to the Immigration Problem. He is the author of many critically-acclaimed books of fiction, poetry, and criticism, including Karachi Raj: A NovelSoraya: SonnetsAnatolia and Other StoriesA History of the Cat in Nine Chapters or Less: A Novel, and Literary Writing in the 21st Century: Conversations. His work appears in many leading literary journals, newspapers, and magazines. He is a Pushcart Prize winner and a graduate of Harvard College.  Originally published at Salon. Reproduced with author permission

I researched and wrote a lot about white supremacy, particularly in its alt-right manifestation, throughout the course of 2017, namely Donald Trump’s first year in office. I hazarded a number of guesses as to where the movement, and more importantly the reaction to it, was headed. Keeping company with this unsavory crowd over an extended period of time, I came to have a deep appreciation for how characteristically American this movement was, and how right it felt to experience it as a natural growth of individualistic capitalism run amok. But by the end of that year the alt-right panic was being subsumed by the #MeToo panic, and honest discussion about the nature of the white supremacist resurgence became more and more difficult in liberal forums.

Around that time I wrote a long essay (published only recently in three parts) analyzing the fate of the leading figures of the alt-right, and focusing on the various methods proposed to deal with the alleged existential threat, including all sorts of power applied by the state and its legal apparatus. I took an absolutist free-speech position with respect to the neo-Nazis — a stance that seems almost ridiculously outdated in these self-righteous times — and argued in favor of the old-line ACLU position rather than the speech compromises endorsed by critical race theory. I raised the question of watchdog biases, and the dangers of permitting such groups, which are de facto instruments of ever-shifting state policy, such great authority in deciding who gets to speak and who doesn’t.

As I reviewed the essay recently, it struck me how extensively the reaction to white supremacy has proceeded along highly undemocratic lines, and how it continues to be a harbinger of worse developments yet to come in the polity, to a far greater extent than even I expected.

1. Censorship Is Virtuous

Violent reaction against speech is now far more pervasive and legitimate than it was at the beginning of the Trump administration. Among millennials and post-millennials, freedom of speech was already viewed as highly questionable. Demonizing Trumpism allowed powerful media companies to assume total control over what speech would be allowed and not allowed. It has become a truly expansive definition, and depends on the whim of the moment. The apparatus of domination and control I described with respect to the alt-right was transposed in its entirety to a thought category called “disinformation” (itself a term of disinformation) and applied to vaccine skeptics or generally anyone who disagreed with official pronouncements about any aspect of COVID-19, even those that were subject to change thanks to new information or scientific reinterpretation.

It has become commonplace for media companies to deny platforms or visibility not just to the most extreme neo-Nazi rabble-rousers like Andrew Anglin and Richard Spencer but to anyone who falls afoul of any aspect of the established liberal worldview on issues of elections, racism, schooling, historical interpretation, science, war, violence, sexuality or indeed anything and everything that doesn’t sit well with the narrow spectrum of reality endorsed by the propaganda arms of the American national security state, fed on illusive notions of meritocratic wokeness.

Was this a price worth paying for making the alt-right invisible? To have such an unprecedented level of institutional (albeit non-governmental) censorship in this country? It starts with Alex Jones, and ends up going after Palestinian activists. It always does. I knew it, and anyone with an eye on history should have known it too.

2. The Enemies Mutate

Every form of domination requires an unacceptable other in order to privilege its own power. In the circa-2017 phase of alt-right ascendance, the antagonists were all those who deployed a racist perspective to question the liberal dogma of perpetual progress by slow degrees. The alt-right enemies of immigration, racial equality and even of interracial relationships or the recognition and celebration of minority cultures were demonized as uncouth savages who had no business seeking a political platform in American democracy.

If liberals believe they triumphed over the alt-right, consider Glenn Youngkin, the Biden administration’s Trumpist immigration policies and ever-increasing police violence against people of color.

Yet consider this: Despite the liberal triumphalism associated with banning controversial speakers on campus and shutting down the social media accounts of alt-right influencers, Glenn Youngkin was recently elected governor of Virginia, in large part driven by antipathy toward the (mostly imaginary) teaching of critical race theory in schools. Consider that the Biden administration has to a large extent kept in place Trump’s exclusionary policies on the southern border. Consider that police violence against unarmed black men and other people of color has only accelerated.

But who supports those things? Large numbers of conservative white voters, of course, not just in the devastated Rust Belt but all over the country. But also, going by the shift of Latino voters toward Trump in 2020, a growing number of some of the liberals’ most cherished constituencies as well.

It is not coincidental that once the neo-Nazis were banned, an entire liberal industry arose to teach white people to search out their most minute expressions of racism (by authors like Ibram X. Kendi and Robin DiAngelo), and to turn that into a beneficent self-improvement project, such as one might approach an addiction or an unhealthy diet. Now the enemy is not the alt-right, but everyone who thinks in unpredictable directions about the current state of our political economy.

To be fair, America faces legitimate social and political quandaries: In the current climate we cannot permit more immigration, although  we desperately need it from an economic point of view. We certainly can’t ban it, which would be economically devastating as well as giving in to the nationalists. So the almost comical answer we have settled upon is to maintain a repressive regime toward immigration and construct as enemies everyone who wants either more or less of it.

The urge to suppress the alt-right was not about “democracy” or some other hazy, high-minded ideal. It was about maintaining the status quo, and the recent expansion of the list of enemies is part of a more ambitious campaign to maintain the status quo as it faces even greater threat, especially during the pandemic.

3. White Supremacy Has Been Mainstreamed

If censorship and legal targeting of the alt-right were supposed to banish the scourge of white supremacy, let us ask the obvious question: Did it succeed? Obviously it did not, and it arguably made white supremacy, in both its overt and covert manifestations, stronger than ever.

Imagine a situation where a confident liberalism, true at least to its principles of allowing fair market exchange and removing unnecessary obstacles to personal economic advancement, not only permitted the free play of alt-right ideas (or more extreme manifestations) but even encouraged them — in order to draw clear distinctions between right and wrong, trusting the democratic public to make its own decisions. Instead, an authoritarian attitude drove the construction of an illiberal liberalism as the only viable political option. At certain points the mythology of that ideology has bordered on the absurd, as in the depiction of Jan. 6, 2021, as an unprecedented existential calamity, or the various travesties of imagination surrounding the Russiagate scandal. This happened to such an extent that white supremacy started sounding reasonable to some people by comparison.

Liberals present themselves as occupying the reasonable center of political discourse today, but in some ways they are more extreme than the most delusional and paranoid Republicans. They have reduced all of human life and its activities to strict monetary calculation, and have destroyed art, imagination and creativity in the process. Their imaginary visions of democracy, human rights and meritocracy are entirely in the service of  justifying the current form of capitalism, which is trending toward eradicating life on the planet.

Despite liberals’ endless self-scrutiny in search of microscopic evidence of racism, I would suggest they are the most effective carriers of the white supremacy virus.

If I haven’t yet alienated all liberal readers, I would go further, to suggest that despite their relentless search for rooting out micro-racism in their minute words and deeds, liberals are in fact the most effective carriers of the white supremacy virus. Emboldening Israel at the cost of any recognition of the rights of Palestinians is white supremacy. Instigating a massively expensive and apparently endless proxy war against Russia, as a first step in checking or confronting the inevitable hegemony of China (those creepy Asians who’ve become too big for their boots), is white supremacy. Converting the George Floyd protests of 2020 into ultimate advocacy for more money for more police — as nearly all Democrats in positions of power now advocate — is white supremacy. Wanting to “save” Afghan women and children by lamenting the end of the 20-year invasion and then imposing sanctions and stealing their money is white supremacy. Which party, I ask you, is more associated with these policies today?

No one has to believe that liberals steal elections or that vaccines are more dangerous than COVID or that school shootings are false-flag events or that there’s a Jewish conspiracy to replace white people. But censoring these thoughts only gives them more durability, as we ought to have learned from repeated examples over the last few years.

Here’s how it works: An illegitimate thought is censored, which gives it a certain resilience as the wrong way to think, opposed to which is the correct thought. Censorship becomes the force by which the liberal-bourgeois state codifies various elements of power such as to propel them beyond the critique of power. In this dynamic, the unfairness of a two-party electoral democracy representing only narrow bourgeois interests, the unequal and even unscientific foundations of American public health, the interdependence of imperial violence with chaotic domestic outbursts, and the bipartisan consensus over the punitive treatment of immigrants become untouchable issues, precisely because quasi-state censorship has elevated them to the status of sacred truths threatened by extremists and therefore not subject to rational critique. Censorship is the process by which the illegitimate is made legitimate.

In these last days of empire, when liberalism is on the defensive and fighting for propositions that are ecologically and even economically unsustainable, we will not see an end to the violent repression of nonconformism, only its reinforcement. Thus it is that so-called wokeness — which is entirely compatible with corporate globalization, and in many cases strongly aligned with it — becomes the darkest force in the land. It feeds denialism, denies that denialism is real and then denies the humanity of those who aren’t woke enough to accept the boundaries of correct thought, whether they are nominally on the left or the right.

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24 comments

  1. Skippy

    Ugh … FDR bastardized liberalism to forward him and his economic agenda, Washington consensus was just a return to a base historical state of a fares. The conservatives on the other hand have always been the original IDpol authoritarians by dint of their religious beliefs projected on all of humanity aka natural/real anything.

    Has everyone just forgotten the last 100 years at least …

    Now both parties are supporting Nazi Fascists in the Ukraine because they were cool with privatizing everything … looks in mirror to see how that is working out for the unwashed patriots at home … gasp.

    Reply
    1. Tony Wright

      Oh dear, “moderated” again for politely responding to a provocative statement by another commenter.
      And on a thread concerning free speech – oh the irony…..

      Reply
  2. YankeeFrank

    Some of the minor framing in this piece is questionable but in the main the author’s point is obvious and sound and the eternal shame of the “liberal” class is that they won’t in any way acknowledge it.

    I would also suggest that the refusal to debate with McCullough and the other doctors who have questioned covid orthodoxy is more than just suggestive of having something to hide. Scientific orthodoxy is an oxymoron. The vax may be better than getting covid (and that’s a big maybe with the data that’s been trickling out from the doc releases every month) but its certainly not better than avoiding covid and using simple, un-patented and patent-expired early treatment protocols and monoclonals.

    Reply
  3. voislav

    The whole premise of the article is that this censorship is somehow new and unprecedented. This is the historical state of the US information system, it would be more accurate to say that the emergence of internet caught the elites by surprise and it took them a few years to reassert their control of the information channels.

    People seem to forget how curated the information system was prior to 2000 or so, a few main networks and newspapers that set the national agenda, plus your local news outlets for lost cats and kids graduations. Talk radio was the furthest any regular person could get in terms of direct participation in the media.

    So the current system is really just a return to prior 2000 status quo, where the information ecosystem is controlled by several large corporations, just instead of ABC/NBC/CBS/Fox we have Facebook and Twitter.

    Reply
    1. Skippy

      “ABC/NBC/CBS/Fox we have Facebook and Twitter.” – apathetic glazed leash on the minds of the unwashed … hear boy/girl … good/bad doggie … yes good doggie …

      Reply
    2. Yves Smith Post author

      Wellie, not quite.

      With cable coming to many homes in the mid 1990s, you had an explosion in cable channels. Admittedly not many were news but some were, you got Telesur, Bloomberg TV, CNBC, BBC, MSNBC etc. And a lot more local programming.

      Reply
    3. Carolinian

      You are correct and a media system that once gave us the Cold War and the Vietnam War was not necessarily more virtuous than the fabulists who currently rule our MSM.

      But the repression of the 1950s did produce a counter reaction–in fact it was called the “counter culture”–and this throve in academia and alt weeklies and other publications outside the main current. I know this because I once worked for one although if being well paid is the definition of work then perhaps it was more of a hobby.

      Back then the notion of actual Soviet style censorship would have been considered deeply un-American and it was, as you say, the dominance of television and the three networks that kept it in the shadows.

      And thing is it’s still deeply un-American. Those who go on about “democracy” (i.e. Hillary Clinton yesterday) need to study some history or at least stop trying to memory hole the history that exists. Free speech is the very essence of our “democracy.”

      Reply
  4. Dr. John Carpenter

    It looks like the article is cut off here, but the Salon link works. And well worth the click. Thanks for sharing this.

    Reply
      1. podcastkid

        Who could thank you enough? Not me.

        Maybe my mind just couldn’t prioritize…likely…but possibly around two days since the 21st were the only days I failed to check out NC. And I don’t remember seeing this piece before today.

        Reply
  5. jr

    “ Liberals present themselves as occupying the reasonable center of political discourse today, but in some ways they are more extreme than the most delusional and paranoid Republicans.”

    This. It’s been truly amazing to see how quickly the liberal mindset devolved into gibbering lunacy in the last few years. Trump really tore the mask off of the rotting corpse. I’ve watched reasonable, educated progressives turn into paranoid, ranting nut-jobs who celebrated the Second Coming-like election of a demented huckster with a penchant for sniffing the hair of young girls and his wildly unpopular running mate who struggles to construct coherent sentences without giggling hysterically.

    Now Tucker Carlson appears to be the voice of reason regarding foreign policy, more Democratic voters watch him than any of the liberal media outlets. Right-wing Catholic Youtuber Matt Walsh is bravely defending children and the philosophical moorings of language from the Woke. A slew of conservative young black commentators have arisen to attack the racism of Kendi and D’Angelo. Margery Taylor fu(king Green steps up to defend Assange. If this was a work of fiction, I would have tossed it aside as too farcical.

    Reply
  6. TimD

    I have trouble with this part, “Imagine a situation where a confident liberalism, true at least to its principles of allowing fair market exchange and removing unnecessary obstacles to personal economic advancement.” America has never been a country of fair market exchange because there have always been obstacles to personal economic, and social, advancement. The country is wealthy because of free land from the natives and Mexico that allowed the creation of a large internal market thanks to structural adjustments in Europe releasing millions of people to the country. It was also benefited by stealing people from Africa and not ever paying them a fair market exchange, except in certain circumstances.

    Liberals just believe that fair market exchange works because they have benefitted from it, seeing it as a personal achievement that makes them better than the “deplorables” and makes them morally and intellectually suited to lead. They have somehow missed that the average American has had stagnant real wages since the late 70s.

    I think that if the Liberals were more grounded on what the country has been and continues to be, they would not be so defensive. They might realize that not everyone starts at second or third base and that some people dream of starting at home plate. Maybe that would help replace the snootiness with empathy – and real policies.

    Reply
  7. Dave in Austin

    The author of this article has the broadest definition of “white surpremacy” I’ve yet seen.

    Reply
  8. anon in so cal

    For several years, Glenn Greenwald has been pointing out rising levels of censorship and authoritarianism pushed by liberal Democrats.

    “Free speech is not a liberal belief. To see how true that it, see this glowing review of a new pro-censorship book in @TheProspect, which argues that the only flaw with the book is it doesn’t go far enough in explicitly advocating new censorship regimes.”

    “Liberals are happy to be governed by CIA because CIA was where Russiagate came from and they see CIA (correctly) as their political ally. They’ll never admit it explicitly — nobody on the center-left wants to say they see CIA as the Good Guys — but this is their worldview.”

    “Democrats/US liberalism is an authoritarian movement. Everything is catastrophized: going back to Russiagate, they don’t fight political opponents but instead traitors and terrorists. Sedition is typically an authoritarian tool so of course they love it:”

    “Democrats, the party of:

    — More corporate and state online censorship

    — DHS controlling “disinformation” decrees

    — $2b more for Capitol Police

    — Huge escalation of the most dangerous war in years, with billions to Raytheon/CIA

    — A new War on Terror, this one domestic”

    Reply
  9. PKMKII

    Using a broad definition, any censorship paradigm revolves around a system of carrots and sticks. In a hard censorship paradigm, that could mean imprisonment for forbidden speech, preferences within the state system/party for proper speech. More middling, that could mean re-assignment to the hinterlands for forbidden speech. In this sort of soft, illiberal liberalism paradigm, the carrot and sticks seem to be about access/praise from intellectual/PMC/elite circles and their institutions. Critical review of COVID vaccines gets you blacklisted from printing in academic journals, questioning the Russiagate narrative gets you branded as misinformation from the Post. Problem is, the people they’re trying to discipline into line not only don’t care about the approval of said circles and institutions, they actively despise those circles. It just empowers them to be shunned by academia and MSM publications.

    Reply
  10. Mildred Montana

    There is no such thing as a “little” censorship or “good” censorship or “necessary” censorship. Free speech is an absolute, all or nothing.

    The well-known exceptions to unfettered free speech (defamation or libel) are tested in court and only then, if found liable, is the critic punished and silenced. But he or she is not censored beforehand.

    As soon as a policy of official censorship—to whatever degree—is adopted, it immediately begins to set bars. Once something, no matter how odious or questionable, has been censored, the bar is set. And officialdom, in its predictable way, will start lowering the bar.

    That slope, almost inevitably, gets pretty darned slippery.

    Reply
    1. Anis Shivani

      It’s just the first word “I” that is missing from the essay. The rest is all intact. “I” decided not to show up.

      Reply
  11. Johnny Rube

    Anyone who wants to read neonazi Andrew Anglin may do so at websites like Unz Review, where Anglin’s anti-Semitic diatribes are published regularly, along with a host of other anti-Semites, white supremacists, science-deniers, American exceptionalists etc. most of whom when pressed eventually get around to blaming everything bad happening to this country on the Jews. Reading Unz Review, with few exceptions, is like getting out of the bath with a dirty face. Amazingly, Ron Unz is Jewish and believes he is fighting the good fight for free speech against censorship, and in many instances he is correct. But I can’t help feeling we’ve long passed Karl Popper’s line for remaining tolerant. Where will this rampant free speech end? Looks like we’re going to fuck around and find out.

    Reply
  12. JBird4049

    For my *entire* life to be liberal meant to be pro free speech even for the most vile or repulsive people. Period. This was especially true because of Berkeley’s Free Speech Movement. The idea of free speech has been a part of political thought, although in not fact, since the colonies. The Enlightenment being the basis of the whole society makes freedom of thought and expression central; that is part of what being a functioning democracy is.

    One can argue the details, but it has been there for over 250 years. So, when I see those labeled “liberal” soberly advocating censorship much like the McCarthyites, who did that loudly, I start getting confused. Has old JBird gotten seriously early senility or is it something in the food? Maybe the water?

    Or maybe I should just read again about the Piltdown Man, the Taung Baby, Plate Tectonics, the theory of evolution, Copernicus, and the Wright Brothers, the Creel Committee, and Joseph McCarthy. Knowledge has been suppress, distorted, or just ignored often for political reasons for a long time.

    It is still really scary to see.

    Reply

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