New York Times’ Odd Ambivalence to Free Expression: A ‘Canard’ Abused by 'Far Right' Racists

July 3rd, 2017 10:38 AM

That journalistic organ the New York Times often shows deep ambivalence on free speech and free expression when done by opponents of speech-squelching leftists, as shown in two recent articles. The lead story in the Times Sunday magazine by John Herrman, who writes about media for the paper, carried the online headline: “Why the Far Right Wants to be the New ‘Alternative ‘Culture.

In Herrman’s conventional wisdom, to say the conservative movement is alternative or in any way persecuted -- or to actually have a point in any way about liberal hypocrisy -- is a perversion of the truth and nothing but “rhetorical appropriation” of the honorable positions of the left. This paragraph carries no mention of the liberal hypocrisy of criticizing conservative Christians but giving Muslims a pass on social issues like gay rights and feminism. Only conservatism is criticized, for having the audacity to make the argument:

An essential feature of the rise of Trumpism has been the brazen inversion, that trusty maneuver in which you wield your critics’ own values against them -- say, borrowing the language of social justice to argue that the “oppressor” is actually oppressed or suddenly embracing progressive social causes in the service of criticizing Islam. It’s a blunt but effective rhetorical confiscation, in which a battle-ready right relishes its ability to seize, inhabit and neutralize the arguments and vocabularies of its opponents, reveling in their continued inability to formulate any sort of answer to the trusty old ‘‘I know you are, but what am I?’’

Hermann alternated between sensible explanatory paragraphs and foaming hostility toward the right.

....Expressing racist ideas in offensive language, for example, or provoking audiences with winking fascist imagery, is, on some level, transgressive. (Both behaviors do have some precedent in the history of actual punk music.)....

Hermann cited a “seminal essay” by old lefty Thomas Frank to explain things to his readers before wrapping up.

The new reactionary ‘‘alternative’’ movement is also keenly aware of power, but it craves it, worships it, is constantly devising plans to acquire it. It has traded a siege mentality for a war bearing; its platforms are less gathering places for expressions of dissent than staging grounds against the venues to which they’re opposed and against which they expect to win. Their rhetoric and style want to evoke, in some ghoulish upside-down way, heroic rebellion, regardless of how well their aims align with the powers that be...

Apparently only one political faction craves power and it’s not the left wing, although it’s the left that seemingly wants control of every aspect of people’s lives, from what they say online to who they bake wedding cakes for.

....This self-described underdog sees nothing problematic in its affinity for power....

Page one of the Times Sunday Review featured a similar article, downplaying the necessity of untrammeled expression in the name of sensitivity and defending the far-left: “Save the First Amendment,” by contributor Lindy West. “Don’t let internet trolls destroy free speech.” Online subhed: “Criticism is not censorship no matter how insistent Twitter’s free speech brigade might be.”

The first thousand times I was accused of being a politically correct, anti-free-speech censor, it seemed silly. The charge was always in response to some relatively innocuous bit of cultural criticism -- like, say, that racism is bad and artists should try not to make racist art if they don’t want to be called racists. Or that if comedians want to joke about rape, they should write their jokes very carefully because rape is very horrible....

Comedians Jerry Seinfeld and Chris Rock, not exactly rock-ribbed conservatives, have noted the intolerance of college campus audiences regarding “problematic” jokes. But there’s nothing to see here but a “canard” on free speech (in quotes, no less):

Criticism is not censorship, and no matter how insistent Twitter’s free speech brigade might be, I felt safe knowing that we could always go back to the text. The Constitution was on my side.

But that was when I thought facts had power, when what we think of as the truth was based more on observable reality and less on the incantations of paranoid uncles who would rather die of preventable diseases than let America’s first black president leave an intact legacy. When the “free speech” canard started nibbling away at me, around 2012 or so, it seemed as goofy as the idea of Donald Trump becoming president. Oops.

Since then, the anti-free-speech charge, applied broadly to cultural criticism and especially to feminist discourse, has proliferated. It is nurtured largely by men on the internet who used to nurse their grievances alone, in disparate, insular communities around the web -- men’s rights forums, video game blogs. Gradually, these communities have drifted together into one great aggrieved, misogynist gyre and bonded over a common interest: pretending to care about freedom of speech so they can feel self-righteous while harassing marginalized people for having opinions.


You can find disingenuous rhetoric about protecting free speech in the engine room of pretty much every digital-age culture war....

It sure sounds like the left is willing to ditch the whole First Amendment thing if it turns out to be a hurdle.

It’s been a surprisingly effective rhetorical strategy nonetheless. Americans are fiercely proud of our culture of (nearly) unfettered expression, though often not so clear on the actual parameters of the First Amendment. To defend speech is to plant a flag on the right side of history; to defend unpopular speech is to be a real rogue, a sophisticate, the kind of guy who gets it.

“Freedom of speech is such a buzzword that people can rally around,” [Feminist Anita] Sarkeesian said, “and that works really well in their favor. They’re weaponizing free speech to maintain their cultural dominance.”

West insisted the right defend celebs like Kathy Griffin who attack President Trump, then went soggily leftist.

They were nowhere, of course (except, perhaps, on the other end of some of those emails), because their true goal has always been to ensure that if anyone is determining the ways that we collectively choose to restrict our own speech in the name of values, they are the ones setting the limits. They want to perform a factory reset to a time when people of color and women didn’t tell white men what to do. And only one 2016 presidential candidate promised such a reset.

West tried to sneak in a long liberal wish list of issues supposedly threatened by the right’s free speech “misappropriation.”

It’s not hard to draw a straight line from internet culture warriors’ misappropriation of free speech to our current mass delusions over climate change, the Hyde Amendment, abstinence-only education, health care as a luxury and class as a meritocracy. “Free speech” rhetoric begot “fake news,” which begot “alternative facts.”