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 theory1 in 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 The examples listed in the piece (“Editors are fired for running controversial pieces; books are withdrawn for alleged inauthenticity; journalists are barred from writing on certain topics; professors are investigated for quoting works of literature in class; a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 quiet2 on 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”)3.