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July 19, 2023

Censorship Is a Left-Wing Value

The Left’s inability to win in the marketplace of ideas has given way to an insatiable urge to silence its opposition.

Rarely in life do we witness the metamorphosis of something into exactly the opposite of what it once was, but such is the case with the Left and free speech.

Leftists have gone from decrying the censors to embracing them, even becoming them. Remember: The Free Speech Movement itself started at Cal-Berkeley in the mid 1960s. What we see from the Left today, though, could rightly be called the Anti-Free Speech Movement.

Exhibit A, of course, would be the 2020 presidential election, during which our federal law enforcement and intelligence apparatuses colluded with Big Tech and Big Media to destroy a story that — if we’re to believe the polling — would’ve changed the outcome of the election and given Donald Trump a second term in office.

It was the ultimate October surprise, the New York Post’s bombshell story about Hunter Biden’s laptop and its deeply incriminating contents, and the FBI worked with Twitter and Facebook to kill it in the crib. That such a thing could’ve happened would’ve seemed unthinkable just a few years ago, back when the FBI could be trusted to act with fidelity, bravery, and integrity rather than throw in with one particular political party against another. No wonder we’ve lost confidence in our institutions. They’re corrupt.

City Journal’s John Tierney presciently wrote about this 30 months ago in the wake of the January 6 riot, noting that “progressive journalists [had] identified a new root cause of mob violence: free speech. They’ve cheered the social-media purge of conservatives and urged further censorship of ‘violent rhetoric’ and ‘disinformation.’ It’s a remarkably self-destructive move for a profession dependent on freedom of speech, but the journalists now dominating newsrooms aren’t thinking long-term. … The traditional liberal devotion to the First Amendment seems hopelessly antiquated to young progressives convinced that they’re on the right side of history.”

Speaking of January 6, current GOP presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy says the suppression of free speech led to that riot. “You tell people in this country they cannot speak, that is when they scream,” he mused. “You tell people in this country they cannot scream, that is when they tear things down.”

When it comes to speech, the Left has always been the gatekeeper because the media has always been a leftist institution. Things began to unravel, to move beyond control of the Left, in August 1988, when the late great Rush Limbaugh made his nationally syndicated radio premiere. Limbaugh’s rise roughly coincided with the 1987 abolition of a 1949 FCC statute called the Fairness Doctrine, which was meant to guarantee equal airing of differing political viewpoints. Without the Fairness Doctrine, the Left’s bad ideas would thus be forced to compete in the marketplace of ideas, where they tended to fail miserably, and where the smooth and steady tones of Walter Cronkite would give way to the shrill and unsteady tones of Rachel Maddow.

Having been burned badly first by Limbaugh and talk radio, and then by the unfettered availability of information and opinion on the Internet, the Left resolved to crack down on free speech. Last year, the Biden administration, via Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, even tried to establish an Orwellian Disinformation Governance Board. The board was to be headed by a cartoon character named Nina Jankowicz, but she was rightly laughed off stage and the bad idea abandoned.

More recently at City Journal, author and former CIA analyst Martin Gurri explored the Left’s new censorship role in the digital realm — specifically, how it co-opted the federal government in this endeavor. He writes:

Federal intervention in digital speech followed a tendentious pattern. Any opinion that offended establishment sensibilities was a target for suppression. That included left-wing populist views and eccentrics like Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., but most of the heretical voices belonged to Donald Trump and his Republican supporters. During the 2020 campaign, Trump was “deamplified” by Twitter — meaning that he was essentially talking to himself. After the January 6 riots in Washington, Twitter booted him off the platform, though it never identified how he had violated its terms of service. FBI personnel took jobs with Twitter in significant numbers, intensifying the partisan tilt. James Baker, who played a leading role in the Trump investigation while at the FBI, became a persistent advocate of expelling Trump after moving to Twitter.

The heroes in exposing this un-American rot are, first and foremost, Elon Musk — for without his sacrificial purchase of Twitter, we’d never have uncovered the Twitter Files. The other heroes are the three journalists whom Musk tabbed to disseminate the files to the rest of us: Matt Taibbi, Michael Shellenberger, and Bari Weiss. These independent journalists have done so at great personal cost, with Taibbi and Shellenberger even being hauled before Congress to endure disgraceful attacks by House Democrats.

“Oscillating in mood between boredom and rage,” wrote Gurri, “[House Democrats] treated the two witnesses like war criminals to be badgered and insulted without mercy until they confessed to their awful, if indeterminate, crimes.”

But whether Big Media is censoring us of its own volition or taking its cues from Big Tech or the FBI hardly matters. When a former Facebook exec says, “We have to turn down the capability of these conservative influencers to reach these huge audiences,” it’s pretty clear that they’re rooting each other on, and it’s pretty clear why: They’re losing the debate; they’re losing the battle of ideas.

Leftists, of course, were always in favor of free speech before they were against it. Their favorite free speech cliché, in fact, goes back more than a century: I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.

It’s a beautiful quote, both pithy and principled, and often falsely attributed to Voltaire, who himself was a strong civil libertarian. But imagine a leftist saying such a thing today. It’s frankly unthinkable.

“Free speech is the main right that you have,” said Tucker Carlson recently. “Without it, you have no others.” As for the future of free speech, City Journal’s Gurri is hopeful:

From the Democrats’ perspective, the portents look grim. The loss of Twitter to Elon Musk was a terrible blow. The condemnation of free speech that attended Twitter’s sale astonished many of us; we can now see that it was driven by foreknowledge that the new censorship, so discreetly implemented, was about to be exposed. The loss of the House reminded Democrats of the eternal problem of democracy. Other means of control will be preferred, with the serial prosecution of Trump serving as the model. The IRS thus paid a surprise visit to Taibbi’s New Jersey home while he was testifying in Washington. The FTC hit Musk with “more than 350 specific demands” for information, including all the juicy details of Twitter’s dealings with journalists like “Bari Weiss, Matt Taibbi, Michael Shellenberger.” As we swing into campaign mode, we should expect an upsurge of creativity along this front.

Indeed we should. Ideas are the most powerful of political weapons, and the Right has the better part of them.

We’ve said it before, but it bears repeating: If the Left weren’t afraid of losing the argument, they wouldn’t need to censor us.

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