The late, legendarily pugnacious author and polemicist Christopher Hitchens used to do this thing in the mid-to-late aughts. He’d take to the lectern in a packed theater, clutching a glass of Johnnie Walker Black, which he’d lovingly refer to as “Mr. Black’s amber restorative.” He’d look out at the assemblage of his fellow citizens and he’d shout, “Fire!” For effect, he’d repeat himself: “Fire!”
When nothing ensued — no panic, no riot — he’d smile slyly. “You see?” he’d say, going on to fill in the context. How Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes’ assertion that freedom of speech did not extend to falsely shouting fire in a crowded movie theater was actually in response to a group of Yiddish-speaking socialists distributing leaflets in opposition to America’s role in World War I — that was the fire the venerated Justice was so eager to put out such that he would sacrifice the First Amendment.
“Be very, very, very careful when people give you arguments from authority or traditions that suggest free speech can be limited by higher authorities like the sainted Holmes because that’s what you’ll get,” Hitchens said. “The end of it is a group of Yiddish speaking radicals being told they can’t hand out a leaflet in Yiddish on a major question of the day. That’s always how it will end.”
“How can it be wise for Gilbert to give a random sample of total strangers veto power over her work — work they have not seen — and leave open the implication that other writers should do the same?” — Katha Pollitt in The Nation.
Ah, if only Hitch were alive to see just how prophetic he was. As was the late journalist Nat Hentoff, who, in 1993’s Free Speech for Me—But Not for Thee, documents how the political Left and Right “relentlessly censor each other.”
With the advent of social media, not to mention the fever dream of Trumpism and its almost-but-not-quite-as toxic reaction, the question of speech and who gets to control it is even more turbo-charged than in Hentoff’s and Hitchens’ days. Now, it seems, everyone of every political persuasion is trying to shut somebody else up.
Censorship … of self?
Locally, we’ve seen it in the uproar over the stupidly offensive musings of Penn Law Professor Amy Wax, and most recently in the banning of our own Buzz Bissinger’s seminal Friday Night Lights by an Iowa school district taking its orders from the AI algorithm that also removed Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy and Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings from library shelves. “I’m flattered to be in the same company,” Bissinger said. “These are great, great books.”
While the powers-that-be in Iowa have since rescinded the Friday Night Lights ban, it was further proof of a virus loose in the land. How bad has it gotten? Another brilliant local author, Elizabeth Gilbert, self-canceled what was to be her forthcoming novel, because its Russian setting set off supporters of Ukraine — who, of course, hadn’t read the book yet. (We’ve reached the point where people literally can’t wait to be offended.)
“I have received an enormous massive outpouring of reactions and responses from my Ukrainian readers, expressing anger, sorrow, disappointment and pain about the fact that I would choose to release a book into the world right now, any book, no matter what the subject of it is, that is set in Russia,” Gilbert said on social media, explaining why she was pulling her novel.
“I didn’t come to the United States of America 25 years ago to learn how to keep my mouth shut. And I’m going to reject all offers that I change that policy.” — Christopher Hitchens
“How can it be wise for Gilbert to give a random sample of total strangers veto power over her work — work they have not seen — and leave open the implication that other writers should do the same?” writes Katha Pollitt in The Nation in a piece wonderfully titled Eat, Pray, Cringe. “Where’s her pride, her courage, her trust in readers, and her solidarity with other writers? Whatever her motives, Gilbert has added yet more pressure on writers to cancel themselves before someone does it for them. That can’t be good for writers, readers, or books.”
I couldn’t get past this phrase in Gilbert’s weird mea culpa: No matter what the subject is. Gilbert’s blanket self-censorship was reminiscent of this chilling policy statement made by then-New York Times editor Dean Baquet to his troops, after his firing of a longtime reporter for insensitively using the N-word in a years-old conversation that witnesses said carried no hint of racist motive: “We do not tolerate racist language regardless of intent.”
The phrase Regardless of intent, like No matter what the subject is, would seem to be the antithesis of Enlightenment values, no? You know, the search for truth, once journalism’s calling card?
The nation’s last remaining bipartisan idea
Fact is, the idea of a free-flowing marketplace of ideas feels quaint nowadays, doesn’t it? After all, censoring others seems to be the nation’s last remaining bipartisan idea. For every right wing school board removing Ibram X. Kendi’s How To Be an Anti-Racist from high school curricula, there’s a left wing counter-removal of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn for Twain’s (politically purposeful) use of the N-word. And don’t get me started on the “Equity Language Guides” being promulgated by the nation’s most powerful institutions, as George Packer brilliantly dissected a few months ago in The Atlantic: They seek to “cleanse language of any trace of privilege, hierarchy, bias, or exclusion … Urban, vibrant, hardworking, and brown bag all crash to earth for subtle racism,” Packer writes, citing in particular the code adopted by the Sierra Club. “Y’all supplants the patriarchal you guys, and elevate voices replaces empower, which used to be uplifting but is now condescending. The poor is classist; battle and minefield disrespect veterans; depressing appropriates a disability; migrant — no explanation, it just has to go.”
How about this for a way forward? Everybody gets to say everything. No more calling for anyone to be fired or banned or canceled, no matter the outrage.
This is where we’re at, folks. A nation of angry countrymen and women, valuing en masse the freedom to take offense over the freedom to express. Even the ACLU — once the last line of defense for unpopular speech — has given up. Once upon a time, under the leadership of legendary leaders like Ira Glasser and Nadine Strossen, the ACLU was the nation’s moral referee. But now, as Glasser has pointed out, the organization that once defended the free speech rights of neo-Nazis in Skokie, Illinois, has, since Charlottesville, become just another progressive interest group, announcing that it would henceforth balance defending groups whose “values are contrary to our values” against the potential “offense to marginalized groups.”
More and more, it seems, liberals and libertarians are rejecting the clear-headed — and deeply American — prescription for how we can all live together proffered by author and queer activist Sarah Schulman in her book, Conflict is Not Abuse: Overstating Harm, Community Responsibility, and the Duty of Repair. “At many levels of human interaction there is the opportunity to conflate discomfort with threat, to mistake an internal anxiety for exterior danger, and in turn to escalate rather than resolve,” writes Schulman.
Her prescription? Work through it. Have it out. Relate to one another. Multiculturalism is supposed to be messy.
Our Citizen board member Ali Velshi has been modeling just such a response in his Banned Book Club segments on MSNBC (which we run as podcasts). Velshi’s interviews of authors whose books are being canceled by zealots in school districts across the country are a testament to the notion that, in a pluralistic society, free speech under assault requires more and better speech, as uncomfortable as that may be. After all, you can’t be “for freedom” without being for freedom of expression, which by definition means support for the thought that offends. I’m not a First Amendment absolutist because I’m desperate to have my ideas heard; rather, I’m desperate to hear what you think of my harebrained ideas.
That’s real freedom in action, folks. We just got done celebrating 50 years of Hip Hop, and rightly so. But overlooked in all the adulation was the fact that Hip Hop was, and remains, essentially a free speech movement. I first saw it while in grad school in New York City in the 80s. I was getting an MFA in English with a creative writing concentration and, yet, on the subway everyday, I’d see the real litterateurs: groups of Black kids huddling over notebooks, furiously scribbling rhymes when they weren’t joyously breaking out into freestyle rap. Around the time NWA rhymed “my full capabilities” with “living in correctional facilities” in Express Yourself and Chuck D was calling rap music the “CNN of the ghetto” — it became clear: For all its faults, (Spike Lee would label elements of rap “the new minstrelsy”) hip-hop celebrated self-expression and, in that way, became the most American of art forms.
Too often, though, we just pretend to value the First Amendment. Cue Ice-T’s Freedom of Speech … Just Watch What You Say.
How about this for a way forward? Everybody gets to say everything. No more calling for anyone to be fired or banned or canceled, no matter the outrage. If you’re offended, do as Schulman, Velshi and Ice-T would: Use your First Amendment rights to make your case.
Because there is no more patriotic act than exercising freedom of expression. Hitchens knew this; born a Brit, he became an American citizen because of the radical ideas along these lines of Thomas Paine, Ben Franklin, et al. Once, during a debate, in the context of discussing the Islamic fatwa ordered against his friend Salman Rushdie, he proclaimed Islam “an enormous religion with gigantic power that claims that an archangel spoke to an illiterate peasant and brought him a final revelation that supersedes all others. It’s a plagiarism by an epileptic of the worst bits of Judaism and Christianity. How long do you think I’m going to be able to say that anywhere I like?”
And then he smiled slyly, and exhibited the sheer joy we all ought to bask in when saying precisely what we really think. “I didn’t come to the United States of America 25 years ago to learn how to keep my mouth shut,” he said. “And I’m going to reject all offers that I change that policy.”
I’m with Hitchens, and that other great First Amendment martyr, Lenny Bruce, who went to jail for using the word “cocksucker” in his nightclub act and, in his defiance of linguistic autocracy, observed that “the suppression of a word gives it its power.” Both were hellbent on saying what they thought, no matter your hurt feelings. Who else is up for adopting their policy?
MORE FROM LARRY PLATTLeft: Liz Gilbert. Right: Buzz Bussinger.