The New-McCarthyism Of Our Censorious Age

Joel Kotkin
Editor of NewGeography.com and Presidential fellow in urban futures at Chapman University

“If my thought dreams could be seen

They’d probably put my head in a guillotine” — Bob Dylan, “It’s All Right Ma”, 1965

We live in a newly censorious age, where old crudities are never forgotten. To be sure, there are some clear malefactors, like Harvey Weinstein and many others, who should be punished to the extent of the law, but there’s clearly a distinct danger to free expression as the emboldened thought police steadily expand their domain.

Often when people are young, they do stupid things, and say even stupider ones. Who reading this article has never said something off base, which has led to numerous dethronings among corporate executives, writers and editors? Time seems to heal no wounds anymore. “Guardians of the Galaxy” director James Gunn was fired for “off color jokes” made a decade ago; a recently removed judicial candidate was let go for somewhat intemperate things he said in college.

In the past we forgave former Klansmen — like Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black or West Virginia Senator Robert Byrd — allowing them to repent as racial progressives. Former socialists and Marxists reinvented themselves as neo-conservatives, often explaining their youthful views reflected past immaturity. Such forgiveness is not on the current media menu.

The new old-time religion

In the past the drive for censorship came largely from the right, led by the Catholic Church, which labored hard to impose their morality on films. Now, increasingly, the thought control comes largely from the left, whose allies control virtually all the institutions — media, universities, mainline churches, culture — that establish social norms.

We’ve gone a long way from the summer of love or the Berkeley “free speech” movement. The rules governing new Netflix productions forbid looking at anyone for more than five seconds, or asking for a phone number. As late night comedy tends to be homogeneous and preachy, you won’t likely see a Lenny Bruce or Rodney Dangerfield. Today if someone, like actor Mark Duplass, even suggests that conservatives might be something other than evil, they are forced to recant and grovel for forgiveness.

The left-McCarthyism on the campuses plays a critical role. The American Association of University Professors, once defenders of academic freedom, now rank among the most passionate defenders of “speech codes,” which now exist in at least half of all campuses. University Pennsylvania law professor Amy Wax was removed from her first year teaching duties, and asked to take a leave of absence for daring to assert the importance of “bourgeois culture” in making for successful lives.

This censorious mood is likely to gain in the coming years. Taking their cue from their teachers, a 2018 survey by Gallup and the Knight Foundation revealed a majority of students think protecting diversity is more important than free speech. Most, according to a 2017 Brookings Institution study, did not understand that the Constitution protects even hateful speech.

Social media makes things worse

The authoritarian trend has been exacerbated by the decline of journalism. As the distinction between opinion and reporting has blurred, the progressive take on news takes on the character of holy writ. On some issues, such as climate change, even mild skepticism is intentionally banished. Some greens actually see the state-controlled Chinese media, where climate skepticism of any kind does not exist, as an aspirational model.

Sadly, the internet — despite its initial low cost of entry — has not done much to broaden discussion. A handful of firms, mostly in Silicon Valley, have gained almost total control of both digital news and advertising cash. News on the internet, notes the BBC, is increasingly shaped by “confirmation bias,” increasingly on the left, appealing to ideologically outraged clickers.

Under pressure from “woke” progressive advocacy groups, reports Vice, the internet grandees — Google, Amazon, Apple, Microsoft, Twitter and Facebook — increasingly “shadow ban” conservative sources. Youtube, for example, recently banned the obnoxious and marginally truthful Infowars, but allows access to the ravings of Antifa militants or the hideous racist, anti-Semite Louis Farrakhan.

An issue beyond politics

Some conservatives see such censorious behavior revealing the hidden fascism of the progressive left, but what the right would do if they, not their political enemies, dominated the means of communication? The real issue is not politics but declining literacy and civility that gets in the way of serious analysis and debate.

At a time that even the ACLU seems to have lost interest in protecting politically incorrect speech, the prospects for free thought seem less than encouraging. With leading opinion-shaping institutions turning themselves into a modern day Star Chambers, people may be well-advised to not express opinions that could cost their reputation or their job.

Writing in 1913 the historian J. B. Bury described the Middle Ages as a place where “a large field … covered by beliefs which authority claimed to impose as true, and reason was warned off the ground.” The current censorious mood, despite its attempt to portray itself as progressive, seems more akin to an unwelcome regression to an ugly, and dogma-plagued, past.

This piece originally appeared in The Orange County Register.

Cross posted at New Geography

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