The "free speech" crowd sure is quiet about GOP efforts to ban books and criminalize dissent.
Who could have predicted this would happen? Me, for one.
Last June, in one of my first newsletters, I wrote about free speech. Specifically, I wrote about Ron DeSantis, Florida’s Republican governor, and his assault on it. (The piece was initially sent out as a paid-only newsletter, but I’ve removed the paywall. Still, please consider supporting my work by purchasing a paid subscription if possible.) At the time, DeSantis had just signed a bill requiring state colleges and universities to annually survey students and faculty about their political beliefs, another bill mandating that the state’s K-12 schools adopt a jingoistic “pro-America” history curriculum that emphasizes the evils of communism, and called on the state board of education to ban the teaching of critical race theoryin classrooms.
“Don't expect the people who've been shouting about ‘free speech’ to fight back against Republican attacks on open discussion,” I wrote at the time.
Among other things, I was referencing Harper’s Magazine’s July 2020 “A Letter on Justice and Open Debate.”
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The Harper’s letter (The Letter™) was a three-paragraph admonishment of “the forces of illiberalism,” focusing almost entirely on threats to “the free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society” from the left. The examples listed in the piece (“Editors are fired for running controversial pieces; books are withdrawn for alleged inauthenticity; journalists are barred from writing on certain topics; professors are investigated for quoting works of literature in class; a researcher is fired for circulating a peer-reviewed academic study; and the heads of organizations are ousted for what are sometimes just clumsy mistakes”) were purposely vague, intended to give readers a sense of a reasonable, if inaccurate, argument that few could disagree with if taken at face value.
As for why the purposely vague examples shouldn’t be taken at face value, I’ll just direct you to this brilliant Michael Hobbes piece:
Fast-forward to 2022, and hey, it turns out that I was right. Go figure.
As predicted, the far-right has used the endless discourse about “the illiberal left” as cover for its agenda of restricting speech and banning books. And as predicted, many of the people who signed onto The Letter™, are either suspiciously quieton the topic or are making excuses for why it’s not actually a bad thing or not actually worse than a handful of people on Twitter saying they thought a book was racist or sexist (i.e. “cancel culture”).
Meanwhile, Republican legislators are lining up a bevy of “anti-Critical Race Theory” bills that dictate what schools are allowed to teach or “promote,” while also being filled with unrelated stuff like this Virginia bill, which would make it effectively illegal for trans students in K-12 schools to use restrooms that match their gender identity.
Last year, Matt Yglesias went on a long-winded defense of Republican activists using opposition to “critical race theory” (despite being an obvious bastardization of what “critical race theory” means") to ban the teaching of certain ideas and concepts in schools (like me, he deletes his old tweets after a while, but I was able to dig this one up. There’s more context in this piece linked here).
Now, keep in mind that the “anti-CRT” Republican bills tend to include things like this (from a Missouri bill), specifically prohibiting use of certain texts and concepts:
Yglesias was one of the Harper’s letter signatories. But after the “anti-CRT”/”campus speech wars” monster he (and others) helped create, which is now being used to ban everything from the teaching of “divisive concepts” to “negative” portrayals of US history to (as highlighted by Jeffrey Sachs below) “promoting” any position “that is in opposition to closely held religious beliefs of students” (i.e. to make it legally risky to hire an LGBTQ teacher, which is what these laws have tended to do when implemented internationally)…
…he’s now asking what it really means to “ban” a book.
Writer Adam Serwer has a running bit where he’ll tweet, “This left wing political correctness is getting out of control” in response to stories about right-wing efforts to ban speech. There are now 118 of these tweets.
As he explains in one tweet from 2019, the bit boils down to political correctness being “treated as an exclusively left-wing phenomenon, even though the loudest complainers are typically censorious when it comes to views they find offensive.”
While a number of the examples he cites are people doing and saying things that would get someone on the left slammed for “cancel culture”…
…many of them (especially during the Trump era) were about leaders in government using their offices to silence or prosecute dissenters.
All I really want is for the people who’ve spent the past several years chiding the left about “cancel culture” to admit they were wrong. You can criticize someone’s outrage, anger, or criticism without pretending that someone’s tweet or blog post about how a certain children’s author is anti-trans is in any way equal to (or worse than) what is currently happening on the right. That’s all I want. Just a simple, “In hindsight, I should have listened to those who tried to sound the alarm about the actual censorship happening on the right.” Unfortunately, I feel like I may be waiting for a while.
Critical race theory is a framework to think about the way facially neutral laws can be discriminatory against minority groups in their implementation. One example of a law that does this is the 1986 Anti-Drug Abuse Act, which treated possession of crack cocaine as a more serious offense than possession of powder cocaine. While facially neutral, there’s no actual mention of race in this portion of the law, Black Americans were much more likely to be convicted of possession of crack cocaine compared to white Americans, who were much more likely to be convicted of possession of powder cocaine. These are the same drug, and there’s really no justification for making crack punishable by a harsher sentence than powder — unless your justification is based on who gets caught with which version.
I’m sure that some have said something, but as a general theme, it’s been a lot of silence.
They’ll argue that “cancel culture” is either worse than state-enforced efforts to silence speech or will argue that it’s not actually a “ban”/”cancellation”/etc. These are thoroughly disingenuous arguments that expose the “anti-cancel culture” crew as massive hypocrites — not that they particularly care.