Freedom is for Nazis
pirate wires #68 // the rise of "moderate" political censorship, "astonishing individual freedom," and nourishing the soul's desire
Astonishing individual freedom (a bad thing, actually). For years, the internet free speech debate went something like this: one group of people in a position of power censored another group of people with less power. The less powerful group yelled “hey, what about free speech?”, and Team Yay Censorship rebutted with “stop crying, private companies are not bound by the First Amendment.” Now, the exact question of free speech in the context of oligopoly social media giants has never been litigated in our highest courts. But assuming political censorship of this kind would stick if given the chance, shopping center cases upholding a right to political protest on private property all be damned, it would still not address the contentious heart of the matter. For the most part, no one is fighting over the legal tradition of “free speech.” For years, we’ve been fighting over “free speech” the value, with legality a clever bit of cover. Historically, separate from law, Americans have valued the right of their neighbors to political dissent, and we’ve looked back on violations of this norm with considerable shame. This is why, until now, censors have run from the argument in honest terms. We all grew up believing political censorship is evil, and so proponents of the stuff have had to lie about their real intentions, likely to themselves as much as to the rest of us. But this week, awash in a thousand “Elon Musk is doing violence by talking” think pieces, it became clear beyond all doubt that free speech — the shared value — is dead. Arguments departed entirely from questions of law, and were made explicitly on behalf of political censorship as a moral good in the pages of our most storied institutions.
Back in February, with the internet thick in a Joe Rogan Says Stuff controversy, Ben Thompson noted his sense that the value of speech, something he cared a great deal about, was no longer shared. “My position lost,” he concluded. Last week, after Elon Musk bought a massive stake of Twitter, “threatening” workers at the speech platform with speech, Thompson reiterated his position, this time pointing to the New York Times, which appeared to make his case:
The plan jibes with Mr. Musk’s, Mr. Dorsey’s and Mr. Agrawal’s beliefs in unfettered free speech. Mr. Musk has criticized Twitter for moderating its platform too restrictively and has said more speech should be allowed. Mr. Dorsey, too, grappled with the decision to boot former President Donald J. Trump off the service last year, saying he did not “celebrate or feel pride” in the move. Mr. Agrawal has said that public conversation provides an inherent good for society.
Their positions have increasingly become outliers in a global debate over free speech online, as more people have questioned whether too much free speech has enabled the spread of misinformation and divisive content.
After Twitter CEO’s Parag Agrawal announced Elon would join Twitter’s board (Musk has since declined for reasons still ambiguous), I touched on the end of free speech myself. But the popular conversation that followed was even more shocking than I anticipated.
“In a decentralized web,” wrote Axios’ Jim VandeHei, “you would decide if Trump appears on the web3 equivalent of your Twitter feed — and set your own thresholds on vaccine information providers.”
The danger of this? The danger of, explicitly, people themselves determining what they read?
“It would be the Wild West of speech and power,” VandeHei continued. “The rule-makers America has relied on since its founding — government and business — would be replaced by a brave new world of astonishing individual freedom.”
Astonishing. Individual. Freedom.
Elsewhere, arguments in favor of authoritarianism were more overt. From the Atlantic, it was a terrifying journey into Elon Musk’s “obsession” with “his version of free speech” (which is just free speech). From the Los Angeles Times, which continues to depart from all major media outlets with its startling reference to the January 6th riot as an “insurrection,” Donald Trump’s use of Twitter was characterized as genius rather than merely popular, and free speech was blamed for America’s decent into authoritarianism. Was Trump erased from the social internet? Yes. Is he currently in power? No. Is political censorship, which the LA Times is now endorsing, itself a tool of authoritarianism? Yes again. So what are we really talking about here? In the Guardian, Robert Reich spectacularly likened Russian platform censorship of the Russian people, which is bad, to Donald Trump not being censored by a platform, which was, until his vanishing, also bad — as bad as Putin. Maintaining Trump’s deplatforming, Reich plainly argued, is the central issue of importance in the Musk Bought Twitter drama. To break this down in clear terms: preventing a president we don’t like from talking is the goal.
By far the most egregious piece was an op-ed published by The Washington Post, which brought in Ellen Pao for comment. Pao is the former CEO of Reddit, but that was a long time ago. These days, when she isn’t writing about a free speech platform and therefore reaching for a link to relevancy, she mostly goes by “advocate” and CEO of Include, a “diversity and inclusion” nonprofit. She is here today to explain why everyone she disagrees with should be excluded.
It's all a bit muddled, but bear with me for a moment while we work toward her chilling conclusion. Right out of the gate, Pao opens with an unsubstantiated abuse claim leveled at Musk, a favorite tactic of the “social justice” left. She then provides a very brief summary of the man’s alleged horrors (they are tweets), and argues Elon “punches down” before lambasting his critique of Justin Trudeau (the current Prime Minister of Canada). Pao goes on to argue rich people controlling our communication platforms, as rich people have done for at least the last century, would place free speech, which she is explicitly arguing against, at risk. It is not clear whether she is aware she is writing for the Washington Post, which is owned by Jeff Bezos, the second richest man in the world.
Finally, Pao demands a series of actual political rules governing what can and can’t be said on social media. All of this is framed as a “protection” of our nation’s speech platforms, and I do think Pao earnestly believes censorship constitutes protection. This is because Pao doesn’t value freedom. The charitable read of Pao is she values truth, which she defines as things that make her feel good. Were she to somehow receive what she here requests, it would end decisively our nation’s 250-year-old commitment to freedom.
Democracy dies in darkness — lol?
Back to Bladerunner. If you’ve been paying attention to the strange links and clips coming out of China, you may have seen this recent bit of dystopia:
To be clear, China deported much of our media over a year ago, and mostly what we’re relying on now for information in the country is social, comprised of what could be anything from misinformation to propaganda to errors in translation. But it looks like the simple act of singing, in protest from a starving city locked indoors allegedly in the middle of a new viral outbreak, is being suppressed. “Please comply with Covid restrictions,” implores the voice of Robotic Hell Karen via drone. “Control your soul’s desire for freedom.”
This must never be America.
There are any number of legitimate social media critiques. Jon Haidt just made another kind of basic Idiocracy pitch over at the Atlantic, for example. For years, I myself have written about a new class of risks innate of virality I don’t believe we’re properly assessing, especially dangerous as they exist in the realm of unknown unknowns. But the reason our censors are talking about the danger of “bad” ideas, which have existed forever, rather than virality at immediate global scale, which has existed for about a decade, is no one in power actually has a problem with instantaneous global reach, because no one in power ever believes they’re unworthy of so incredible a megaphone. Powerful people aren’t interested in solving the problem of “misinformation.” Powerful people are interested in suppressing dissent. The end. Full stop. It’s this.
It will always just be this.
Anti-free speech arguments have evolved from “censorship isn’t happening, because the government isn’t involved,” and “users want censorship, because free speech is dangerous,” to “people are dangerous, so we need censorship — enshrined into law by the government.” Imminently, we will be expected to believe not only should we give up free speech, but free speech is a new, radical concept, perhaps an artifact of the “crazy” sixties, where we litigated such “crazy” things as the civil rights of politically disenfranchised minorities. After that, once free speech is well and truly gone, we will be told it never even existed.
In resistance to authoritarianism, it’s important first to not give up the definition of freedom, with calls for moderation from media personalities and professional justice grifters now at odds with, they say, things like “free speech maximalism” or “free speech absolutism,” positions that do not exist. There is only free speech, with proponents of liberty and detractors. If you are a proponent, let the detractors know that they are not. Ask your would-be censors why they favor political censorship, and force them to answer the obvious follow-up questions: who determines what can and can’t be said, or what beliefs can and can’t be held? What qualities do such people, in such incredible positions of power, have that make them worthy of this power — a power that not even our greatest Americans believed themselves deserving? Have we evolved in some way? Is the TikTok generation uniquely moral, intelligent, or wise?
Or do authoritarians still just want to do authoritarianism?
Never control your soul’s desire for liberty. “Astonishing individual freedom” is our birthright. It should be the birthright of your son, and his daughter. The moment we stop believing we’re on the right side of history, we won’t be. So we have to fight.
But honestly, guys, the censorship people have already admitted they’re literally scared of words. If that’s the terrain, I’m pretty sure that we can win.
Mike, I have been reading you since you went on Substack. But this is one of your most eloquent pieces. Terse, lucid, pointed -- many thanks.
"Powerful people are interested in suppressing dissent. The end. Full stop. It’s this." Simply stated. Fantastic article!