The future is Florida, and that has me worried
Don't expect the people who've been shouting about "free speech" to fight back against Republican attacks on open discussion.
If you’re curious about the future of the Republican Party, look to Florida. For the past several months, Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis has been enacting laws aimed at one thing: stifling free speech. Weirdly, this doesn’t seem to be getting a whole lot of attention.
Just this week, DeSantis signed a bill that would require state colleges and universities to conduct annual surveys of students and faculty about their political beliefs, another that mandates that the state’s K-12 schools teach an ideologically-driven version of history with an emphasis on the evils of communism and chock full of pro-America jingoism, and called on the state board of education to ban the teaching of critical race theory in schools (no, critical race theory is not being taught in schools, but Republican rants about it usually just mean “I don’t want my kids to be taught that racism is a real thing”). He also signed a bill that says that state colleges can’t shield students from accessing or observing ideas and opinions “they may find uncomfortable, unwelcome, disagreeable, or offensive.”
Yes, several of these items contradict each other, but that’s the point. On the first day of LGBTQ Pride month, DeSantis signed a bill banning trans students from participating in school sports. In May, he signed a(n almost certainly unconstitutional) bill that would limit social media companies’ First Amendment rights. And in April, DeSantis signed what is being called “the nation’s toughest restrictions on protesters.”
This is Florida, and the rest of the country may soon follow. But don’t expect the loudest proponents of “free speech” to fight back against it.
It’s been nearly a year since Harper’s Magazine published “A Letter on Justice and Open Debate.” Designed to read as a reasonable statement in support of free speech, the letter — which was signed by more than a few extremely well-known names — dominated discussion in certain corners of the internet in the days that followed.
For those unfamiliar with The Letter™, check it out here. It’s only three paragraphs long, shouldn’t take much time. To summarize: it’s good that people are pushing for positive social change, but sometimes the people doing that “weaken our norms of open debate and toleration of differences in favor of ideological conformity,” which is bad so… they should stop doing that.
The letter is pretty vague when it comes to specifics, though it references editors being “fired for running controversial pieces,” books being “withdrawn for alleged inauthenticity,” professors being “investigated for quoting works of literature in class,” and journalists being “barred from writing on certain topics.” Those who follow the work of some of the letter’s bigger names can probably piece together the specific incidents they’re talking about, but the rest of the world is left nodding their heads and thinking about how reasonable the authors sound. It’s the type of piece that if you take it at face value, makes it near impossible to disagree with.
But you can’t take it at face value. Specifics matter, and once you start plugging them back into the letter, there’s much more nuance to these situations than is being offered up. The editor fired “for running controversial pieces” was almost certainly a reference to former New York Times editorial page editor James Bennet. Bennet resigned from the Times after the paper published an op-ed from Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR) calling on then-President Donald Trump to send the military into cities across the countries to quash Black Lives Matter protests. It wasn’t just that Bennet ran “controversial pieces,” though. Bennet admitted that he hadn’t even read Cotton’s submission before publishing it. And If you’re going to run a piece urging military action against U.S. citizens, it shouldn’t be too much to ask that the opinion editor actually reads it first.
Last year, former New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson told the Washington Post that she thought the letter was “part of an anti-wokeness campaign, backlash clothed as free speech.” I tend to agree, especially given that aside from a quick mention of Donald Trump as “a powerful ally” to “the forces of illiberalism” and the addition of a very to be sure mention that the authors “have come to expect this on the radical right,” the letter was laser-focused on criticism coming from the left.
But let’s put the letter in context…
A month before the letter was published, author J.K. Rowling shared a blog post (partially) explaining her position on trans rights (she went to some length to say why trans people shouldn’t have some rights, supported by some genuinely nonsensical anti-trans talking points; while she made an effort to say that of course trans people shouldn’t be harmed, her blog advocated in favor of stripping back legal protections, a move that would undoubtedly result in more anti-trans harassment, physical harm, and a general inability to exist in the world without having to continually out themselves as trans).
Predictably, there was some backlash to one of the most famous authors on the planet taking such a position. Trans fans of her work were at a loss with how to reconcile the enjoyment of her writing with the knowledge that she was a fan (Rowling specifically mentions her admiration of this person) of a commentator who famously referred to trans women as “blackface actors” and devoted a lot of her time online to calling trans women “men.” It’s more than reasonable that they would be disappointed. I’m not at all interested in relitigating Rowling’s blog or anything else she has to say about trans people, but I do recommend that people check out Zinnia Jones’ 3 part series pushing back on Rowling’s arguments here, here, and here.
Withholding or delaying necessary medical treatment for trans people, forcing them to use the wrong bathrooms, and arguing that trans people shouldn’t have the same legal protections as others when it comes to things like workplace harassment… well, that sure seems like “cancel culture” on a pretty broad scale. Yet… the letter was a pretty thinly-veiled missive aimed at defending her from “cancel culture.” Critics of the letter rightly noted that perhaps it’s not the billionaire author who needs protection from being “canceled,” but the other way around. But that kind of gets into the problem.
Critics of the letter pointed out that many of the signatories were hypocrites on the topic of “cancel culture. That didn’t seem to faze them.
This isn’t a surprise. A number of the letter’s signatories have a long history of hypocrisy on the topic of free speech. Take, for instance, former New York Times opinion writer and editor Bari Weiss. Weiss obsesses over “cancel culture” (see: her defense of a woman’s innate right to perform a bizarre rap song at a college library; or check out her promotion of “the Intellectual Dark Web,” a group of wealthy conservative speakers with gigantic platforms who mope about “cancel culture” because sometimes students protest their events at college campuses), but is just as guilty (if not guiltier) of trying to “cancel” people if she disagrees with a position they take.
Take, for instance, the way Weiss responded to someone trying to get progressive Jewish political cartoonist Eli Valley’s scheduled trip to Stanford University canceled.
Here’s something I wrote about this back in 2019:
Days before [Valley’s] scheduled appearance, the Stanford College Republicans posted flyers around campus containing some of Valley’s work alongside clippings from Der Stürmer, a Nazi-era German newspaper known for publishing vicious anti-Semitic propaganda. The group acknowledged that it did this in retaliation because posters for one of their events were covered up by posters of the group sponsoring Valley’s appearance.
The groups bringing Valley to campus, Students for Justice in Palestine and Jewish Voice for Peace, took some of the blame for the backlash. In an op-ed for The Stanford Daily, the groups apologized for including Valley’s work, which is meant to be a grotesque and provocative political criticism, without the proper context. In response, TheStanford Daily published an opposing op-ed comparing Valley’s work to the propaganda of Joseph Goebbels, writing, “To apologize for the flyers but insist on continuing with the event is equal parts absurd and appalling.”
This seemed like precisely the kind of campus controversy that would grab the attention of Weiss, Stephens, and the rest of conservative media: Here was a student group trying to intimidate a speaker out of appearing on campus as scheduled. On the principles of free speech and academic freedom, taking a stand for Valley seemed to be the obvious call. Instead, Weiss praised the article calling for Valley’s cancellation on Twitter, thanking its author.
“Bari Weiss's attempt to get me de-platformed at Stanford, and her smear that my celebration of non-Zionist Jewish culture, politics, and art is tantamount to Nazism, should put an end to the myth that she is interested in a free exchange of ideas,” Valley said in a Twitter direct message. “She is interested [in] silencing the Left and in mainstreaming far-right ideology.”
Valley’s view of Weiss is in line with her own history of activism and protest against pro-Palestinian Columbia University professors during her time at the school. Far from a proponent of across-the-board freedom of expression, she and the Times’ other columnists have been extremely selective about which stories get heard.
If your entire brand is built upon being “anti-cancel culture” and pro-speech, you really cannot side with the group trying to get someone’s speaking engagement actually canceled because you disagree with their work, even if you find it abhorrent. One could absolutely argue that the op-ed writer was simply using their own speech to counter Valley’s and the student organizations’, but those are precisely the types of arguments the “anti-cancel culture” crusaders outright reject virtually any other time.
As though to hammer home just how hypocritical the letter was, writer Thomas Chatterton Williams posted to Twitter just days after the letter’s publication that he “ended up expelling from my house an American friend of a friend staying over who, out of nowhere, started ranting against Bari Weiss.” Obviously, it’s his house and he can invite whomever he’d like into it, but kicking someone out because they were saying something he disagreed with certainly seems to go against the spirit of the letter.
Attacks on speech have gotten worse in the past year. But since it’s largely driven by people on the right, the people who signed the letter have done very little to push back.
Writer Matt Yglesias, who signed the letter, recently tweeted in defense of the right-wing attack on teachers’ ability to discuss racism in the classroom, a campaign being framed as a way to stop the teaching of “Critical Race Theory.”
I responded to his tweets. Rather than fill the rest of this letter with a bunch of embeds, I’ll just type it back out.
Matthew Yglesias: I have not read the four-volume, "Critical Race Theory in Education" book series that costs $1,350 so I'm not going to express a strong view about the merits of the ideas it contains. But it's a real thing.
Parker Molloy: Nobody doubts that it’s “a real thing.” It is NOT being taught in K-12 schools, though, and efforts to label anything that veers from Trump’s fashy “patriotic education” propaganda as “CRT” are attempts to outlaw speech. For once stop being a goofy reflexive contrarian.
MY: There are actually hundreds of millions of people in America with different levels of awareness of different things.
PM: A lot of people read you, though. You have an ethical responsibility to know wtf you’re actually talking about because the words you type get read by gigantic audiences. This astroturf “movement” which is being driven almost entirely by right-wing media and groups like the Heritage Foundation has people running into school board meetings and screaming about their kindergartners not being taught CRT (which they aren’t!).
States are currently trying to outlaw certain topics from being discussed in schools. Because it’s being driven by the right, you don’t care. Yet every single time someone on the left (anyone, not even an elected official or media personality, just anyone) complains about anything, you and the rest of the VERY SERIOUS PUNDIT brigade of centrists lose your sh*t and start writing goofy-ass open letters to publish in Harper’s and sh*t.
For real, a bunch of professional contrarians got together last summer to write a letter about how it’s bad that trans people thought a children’s author was sh*tty for advocating against their rights. Agree or disagree, there wasn’t a threat to speech there. It was more speech. And now you’ve got Republicans turning this nonsense astroturf campaign into their whole rallying cry and… where tf are you? Or Chait? Or any of the people who signed that letter last year? Where’s your concern about “shutting down speech?” It’s nowhere.
Where has the backlash from the people who wrote a whole letter about the importance of “open debate” been on this? Republicans have set up a boogeyman (CRT), told their constituents that it’s being taught to their K-12 kids (it’s not and nobody says it should), and now want to make it ILLEGAL to teach a wide range of semi-related topics under the banner of “banning CRT.”
THIS is precisely why people criticized the letter-writers last year. Because it was obvious that you all didn’t actually care about “open debate.” Because when someone on the right tries to make it illegal to basically teach a more accurate version of history, you not only don’t push back, but you actually find a way to sympathize with their position. Because it was never about “open debate.”
I’d have much more respect for you and the rest of the Very Serious Thinkers who signed that letter if you’d all have just been honest about what kind of speech you were interested in protecting and what kind of speech you think it’s okay to use the power of the law to ban.
That’s when Yglesias stopped responding. Go figure. But my point stands.
After the University of North Carolina’s politically-appointed board of trustees overruled the school’s faculty by denying Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones, a number of letter signatories downplayed a situation they would have almost certainly freaked out over had it been a conservative in her place.
Republican states are passing virulently anti-speech bills, but the “free speech” brigade can’t seem to be bothered.
I guess that saying “hey, it’s transphobic to call me a man” is an assault on free inquiry but enacting laws that silence the left while mandating right-wing indoctrination are totally fine.
Just as Trump’s “1776 Project” attempt to instill a “patriotic education” (read: propaganda) agenda in schools, that’s what Republicans are doing now: trying to legislate what can and can’t be discussed.
Where are the letter-writers?
I'm puzzled by the sentence "Bennet admitted that he hadn’t even read Cotton’s submission before publishing it". It seems to me plausible, and maybe even likely, that Bennett did a quick calculation of whether it was more damning to have published the Cotton without reading it or to have published it knowing full well what it said; and he decided it was better to claim not to have read it. So I think "claimed" might have been more accurate than "admitted".
Just a quibble in an otherwise useful summary.