Free Speech Enthusiast Matt Yglesias Refers to Book Bans as "Identity Politics for Librarians"
Starting to think some of the Free Speech Brigade don't actually care about "free speech"
Back in 2020, there was a letter published by Harper’s Magazine, titled, “A Letter on Justice and Open Debate.” For those of you lucky enough not to know what I’m referring to, it was a letter signed by a bunch of authors, journalists, and famous-type-people framed as some sort of bold stand for, well, justice and open debate, whatever that means.
I’ve criticized it before, and you can read about that here. It was essentially an anti-"cancel culture" letter. And this isn’t to get into the topic of “cancel culture” or the merits of it or whatever — it’s a complicated topic I’ve written about at length. Critics (like me) had argued that the people behind it didn’t actually care about “free speech” or “open debate” as a principle. The letter makes a very quick “to be sure” style note that yes, conservatives are obviously bad in their own ways and do this as well, but it’s very clearly directed at liberals.
To give you a sense of the letter’s tone, here’s the closing paragraph:
This stifling atmosphere will ultimately harm the most vital causes of our time. The restriction of debate, whether by a repressive government or an intolerant society, invariably hurts those who lack power and makes everyone less capable of democratic participation. The way to defeat bad ideas is by exposure, argument, and persuasion, not by trying to silence or wish them away. We refuse any false choice between justice and freedom, which cannot exist without each other. As writers we need a culture that leaves us room for experimentation, risk taking, and even mistakes. We need to preserve the possibility of good-faith disagreement without dire professional consequences. If we won’t defend the very thing on which our work depends, we shouldn’t expect the public or the state to defend it for us.
Powerful! Inspiring! Really plays up the importance of free speech, and how sacred and necessary it is for society! The part about the necessity of “defend[ing] the very thing on which our work depends”? Gives me chills, I tell ya. If I didn’t see the subtext and understand the issue being discussed particularly well, I’d be on board with whatever they had to say!
Real quick: do me a favor and subscribe, please. Thanks!
Fast forward to 2023.
So, I’m at my desk and looking at Twitter when I see this post from Matt Yglesias, promoting a column from Josh Barro about Florida Governor Ron DeSantis. (The content of Barro’s piece is irrelevant to the point I’m going to make, so this isn’t either an endorsement or criticism of whatever he has to say.)
“I advise everyone to engage in mindful tweeting and talk more about this and less about identity politics for librarians,” Yglesias wrote.
“Are you referring to opposition to banning books?” he asked.
“Yes: My contention is that more cross-pressured and sporadic voters care about the future of Social Security and health care programs than about which books are available in which libraries,” Yglesias responded.
For those out of the loop, DeSantis has really leaned into the “culture” and “education” issues during his time as governor.at has been covering the extreme state-sponsored censorship happening in Florida right now.
Many of the people who signed that letter have always been hypocrites who obviously don’t care about speech. Bari Weiss spent her college years trying to get Palestinian professors fired from her school and more recently cheered on an op-ed condemning Stanford’s decision to allow Eli Valley to speak on campus. J.K. Rowling signed on to the letter about “open debate” while (seemingly) regularly threatening people who criticize her as transphobic with lawsuits (even though she is transphobic, don’t sue me!). This was one of the big issues critics (myself included) had with the letter: it was signed by a lot of extremely censorship-happy hypocrites.
But what of the rest? Speech is under attack, and it’s not “oh, these random people on the internet criticized me” or "Twitter roasted a guy for saying something they disagreed with” or “this student protest was a bit overzealous!” No, no, no. It’s the “Hey, the state is trying to purge libraries of books that feature LGBTQ people or discuss racism!” variety of speech that's under attack. Seems like the Free Speech Brigade who signed on to the Harper’s Letter would be all about that!
And yet, there Matt Yglesias is, a man who, again, signed a letter that said, “If we won’t defend the very thing on which our work depends, we shouldn’t expect the public for the state to defend it for us,” characterizing government-initiated limits on what can be discussed in schools, what books can be taught in class, what books are allowed in the school and public library, and so on, as “identity politics for librarians.”
This is who the pundit class has always been. I called it back in 2021, writing that as DeSantis gets ever more aggressive in his campaign to restrict speech (he’s been at it for a while), we shouldn’t “expect the people who've been shouting about ‘free speech’ to fight back against Republican attacks on open discussion.” Even better, the specific example of a “free speech” champion who would surely continue to downplay and ignore actual attacks on speech while criticizing “wokeness” and whatnot as though trans people existing and wanting to be left alone is somehow an issue of speech… anyway, sorry, the example I used was Yglesias.
Writer Joshua Holland tweeted in June 2021, “It drives me crazy that normal people think there’s an actual debate over Critical Race Theory and try to engage in it. CRT is a good thing for grad students to learn, nobody’s teaching it to kids and it isn’t an issue of public interest. This is a fascist propaganda campaign.”
Yglesias responded to the tweet by highlighting that a book called called “Critical Race Theory in Education” existed (and apparently cost $1,350!). “I think this is a kind of a misunderstanding. … I don’t think anyone is ‘teaching Critical Race Theory’ in elementary school. But there is a body of CRT thought in graduate schools that is somewhat influential in some contemporary K-12 schools.”
His argument was that the GOP attacks on “Critical Race Theory,” which members of the pundit class like himself helped legitimize with semi-regular pieces about why it’s a real thing that is bad and needs to be addressed. Then, there were those like Holland, who recognized it as a “fascist propaganda campaign” being used to restrict speech and limit learning.
I had a whole, lengthy response to him, published here, about how there were real threats to speech, that Republicans were trying to shut down speech and limit what could be taught, and that it was hypocritical of him to continue to downplay people’s concerns about the DeSantis censorship regime.
I never thought he would just admit it, though!
You don’t get to pretend to be a champion for free speech, pointing to it as an issue that must be fought for, as an issue that can’t wait… while also referring to book bans as “identity politics for librarians.”
Sorry, I don’t make the rules, but those two things are diametrically opposed. You don’t get to say “If we won’t defend the very thing on which our work depends, we shouldn’t expect the public or the state to defend it for us,” while then asking people to “engage in mindful tweeting and talk more about [DeSantis’ decade-old comment about wanting to privatize Social Security] and less about identity politics for librarians.” At least without people pointing out the wild, flagrant hypocrisy of it all.
This is what’s so frustrating about writing on politics: the pundit class understands that it never, ever, ever has to discuss an issue on its merits if it can instead turn it into an issue of speech. It’s smart! You avoid having to ever actually say what you believe while simply being selective about which issues you think deserve the “sound the alarms and call the magazines!” treatment and which issues get ignored. Whether it’s “smart politics” to talk about one issue or another is entirely secondary to this point. Please understand that.
It may, in fact, be better politics to focus on DeSantis’ Social Security comments versus his attempts to censor and restrict content he dislikes, but then that makes you wonder why a bunch of writers decided that it was not only worth saying, but that it was essential that people hear this message during the summer 2020 Black Lives Matter protests and looming elections. At minimum, I think it at least speaks to the inconsistent application of the “free speech” commitments.
Where’s the “Harper’s Letter” about the states enacting laws restricting speech? Where’s the “Harper’s Letter” that makes clear that whatever beliefs you have about “cancel culture,” state-sponsored censorship is a much more extreme version of that? Because, hey, I’m going to be honest! It’s started to seem like a bunch of the people who signed that letter don’t care so much about free speech as they care about the ability to openly advocate against a group of people’s civil rights and stoke a moral panic without receiving criticism from people on the internet. I really wish they’d just come out and say that.
And if that’s the case, stop using “open debate” as a shield against criticism and simply defend ideas on their merits.