Locusts: The Spreading Plague of Liberal Censorship


An idea that is not dangerous is unworthy of being called an idea at all.

Oscar Wilde

What is freedom of expression? Without the freedom to offend, it ceases to exist.

Salman Rushdie

If we don’t believe in freedom of expression for people we despise, we don’t believe in it at all.

Noam Chomsky

I’ve been told repeatedly never to open a piece with a quotation. Having digested that advice, I’ve gone ahead and opened this piece with three. Never mind that the list of quoted individuals includes a hedonistic and lecherous Irishman, a staunch opponent of the increasingly abused and perpetually misunderstood concept of cultural relativism, and a radical pinko intellectual. The more pressing fact is that they all have a point. Unfortunately, this is a point that a growing segment of purportedly progressive academics seem to have missed. A disconcerting wave of liberal censorship is flourishing on college campuses across the United States. That this censorship is advanced in the name of progressive values is, quite frankly, offensive. It is probably reasonable to assume that the most passionate advocates of moves to institute the use of “trigger warnings” when potentially uncomfortable subjects are under discussion, establish “safe spaces” where people who voice culturally insensitive perspectives are derided and shunned, and prohibit controversial speakers from speaking at university events, have laudable motivations rooted in a sincere concern over the comfort and psychological well-being of other. But the ground they tread is incredibly dangerous, fraught with all the trappings of incipient autocracy.

The problems with this trend are myriad and I have written about them elsewhere. To begin with, there are no universal criteria for defining what does and does not count as offensive or threatening speech. It is rooted entirely in the subjective experience of the listener, and only loosely bound by the communicative intent of the speaker. As a result, the realm of what counts as a subject worthy of “trigger warnings” or exclusion from a “safe space” is potentially infinite. As Wendy Kaminer put it:

This reliance on subjectivity, in the interest of equality, is a recipe for arbitrary, discriminatory enforcement practices, with far-reaching effects on individual liberty. The tendency to take subjective allegations of victimization at face value — instrumental in contemporary censorship campaigns — also leads to the presumption of guilt and disregard for due process in the progressive approach to alleged sexual assaults on campus.

This is a dangerously misguided approach to justice. “Feeling realities” belong in a therapist’s office. Incorporated into laws and regulations, they lead to the soft authoritarianism that now governs many American campuses. Instead of advancing equality, it’s teaching future generations of leaders the “virtues” of autocracy.

More fundamentally, the very notion that people have a right not to be offended should be anathema to anyone sympathetic to the intellectual traditions at the heart of the American Experiment. Take for example the bloviating walrus Rush Limbaugh, who makes millions of dollars by spewing abominable invective across the a.m. airwaves. The man is a fount of vile opinions, nurtured on ignorance and paranoia. But anyone who truly endorses the values expressed in the founding documents of the U.S. constitution should, at the very least, be willing to tolerate his right to express his views.

On a still more elementary level, the idea of censoring views should be appalling to anyone who cherishes the sense of intellectual freedom at the core of the Enlightenment. The freedom to express opinions, however repugnant, is crucial to the growth of knowledge and the cultivation of social progress. The proponents of the modern wave of liberal censorship seem to have conflated silencing bigots with the eradication of bigotry. This, I suspect, is not the most effective tactic to employ in combating the more regressive elements of modern society. It has also revealed itself to be an entirely non-metaphorical slippery-slope, as some students have taken to protesting more than objective expressions of bigotry. Following the expression of some accurate (if less-than eloquently phrased) opinions on modern Islam, students at UC Berkely petitioned to rescind a invitation for comedian Bill Maher to speak at the Fall 2014 commencement Ceremony. The petition read:

The students at the University of California at Berkeley represent a diverse array of students from all walks of life. Every semester a commencement speaker is given the privilege of inspiring a class of talented and capable students. This year, UC Berkeley has chosen to invite Bill Maher to speak. Bill Maher has made comments thata are blantantly bigoted and racist and has no respect for the values UC Berkeley students and administration stand for. In a time where climate is a priority for all on campus, we cannot invite an individual who himself perpetuates a dangerous learning environment. Bill Maher’s public statements on various religions and cultures are offensive and his dangerous rhetoric has found its way into our campus communities. Too many students are marginalized by his remarks and if the University were to bring this individual as a commencement speaker they would not be supporting these historically marginalized communities. It is the responsibility of the University of California to protect all students and uphold a standard of civility. Sign this petition to boycott the decision to invite Bill Maher as a commencement speaker at the U.C. Berkeley Fall 2014 Commencement Ceremony.

Pure nonsense, of course. And also, in its quivering and fervent expression of coddled entitlement, entirely reprehensible. This kind of clumsy, rule-of-thumb invocation of the principle of cultural relativism is indicative of a shallow understanding of the way the world actually works and a pitiful unwillingness to live in the world as it actually is. The views expressed in this petition are not those espoused by people with an enlightened sense of sensitivity. They are the opinions of first-world brats who – to borrow of phrase from Hunter S. Thompson – don’t have the ingredients to “live out where the real wind blows.” University campuses are designed to be places where students are confronted with ideas that make them feel uncomfortable, not biological preserves for milquetoast hipsters and liberal arts students who have somehow come up with the bizarre notion that the world is not a dangerous place and that life therein isn’t hard. If you get through college without running into views that offend you, that make you question long-held preconceptions, and get out into the world with the poisonous notion that everyone’s views are equally valid and that you have a right not to be offended, you should ask for your money back. Everyone has a right to express their views. The unfortunate fact that many of these views turn out to be unsubstantiated garbage or steeped in  prejudice, ignorance, and/or hatred doesn’t change that. Trigger warnings aren’t a path to a civil environment wherein no one says anything hurtful. They are a path to a monochrome and tedious world wherein no one says anything interesting.

Supreme Court ads another cobble to the path toward U.S. plutocracy

The conservative Supreme Court justices have struck another resounding blow against the tyranny of campaign finance law. This nation’s beleaguered rich have suffered too long, their liberties shackled to the millstone of an unnecessarily broad definition of quid-pro-quo corruption. With this ruling, justices Roberts, Scalia, Kennedy, Thomas, and Alito breath new life into the First Amendment of the United States constitution. America’s wealthiest citizens, long afflicted with a form of selective mutism preventing them from participating in traditional forms of participatory democracy, can now speak with their money.

Or so the conservative Supreme Court justices, apparent lapdogs of America’s conservative plutocrats, would have the nation believe.

For those unaware, McCutchen vs. FEC resulted a split 5-4 decision on Wednesday, ruling that overall caps on campaign contribution are illegal. The cap on how much one can donate to a particular candidate remains the same at $2600, but the overall cap of $123,200 every two years ($48,600 distributed among individual candidates, $74,600 to parties) has been abolished. Conservatives argue that this is an expansion of liberty – that it makes the democratic process more inclusive. RNC chairman Reince Priebus commented, “is an important first step toward restoring the voice of candidates and party committees and a vindication for all those who support robust, transparent political discourse.” This, of course, is mendacious nonsense aimed at justifying their anti-democratic leanings to their puerile base. The decision broadens the democratic process for people who have more than $48,600 in disposable income to spend on political campaigns every two years. For those of us not suffering under the blight of that limit, the influence of speech is actively diminished. As the dissenting minority on the Supreme Court wrote:

The First Amendment advances not only the individual’s right to engage in political speech, but also the public’s interest in preserving a democratic order in which collective speech matters.

What has this to do with corruption? It has everything to do with corruption. Corruption breaks the constitution­ally necessary “chain of communication” between the people and their representatives. It derails the essential speech-to-government-action tie. Where enough money calls the tune, the general public will not be heard. Insofar as corruption cuts the link between political thought and political action, a free marketplace of political ideas loses its point. That is one reason why the Court has stressed the constitutional importance of Congress’ concern that a few large donations not drown out the voices of the many…

In conjunction with the 2010 Citizen United ruling, this represents another victory in a campaign apparently aimed at placing the majority of political influence into the hands of a vanishingly small minority of extremely wealthy individuals. I’m not sure what the lower limit might be for being able to donate more than $48,600 every two years to the political campaigns of individual candidates, but if we arbitrarily take $250,000 per year as a benchmark, then the voices of roughly 3% of Americans are amplified by the Supreme Courts ruling. Even then, individuals would be spending a minimum of 9.7% of their gross income on politics. If they were spending the full amount – $123,200 for candidates and political parties – they’d be investing 24.6% of their two-year gross income attempting to influence elections. Rather unlikely, I think.

In reality, things seem to be much worse than the preceding hypothetical scenario would suggest. Indeed, in 2012, only 591 people gave the maximum amount to federal election campaigns. Clearly, the only people that stand to benefit from the Supreme Court’s Citizens United and McCutheon rulings belong to an exceedingly small minority of America’s most outlandishly wealthy citizens. As Lawrence Lessig points out, only 0.01% of Americans gave more than $10,000 dollars to political campaigns in 2012, while only 0.000042% (132 individuals) gave 60% of the money spent by superPACs. General elections are decided by voters – who runs in them is decided by donors. Put another way, if politicians can get most of the funding they need from 0.05-0.01% of the U.S. population, their stake in addressing the interests of the other 99.95-99.99% is sharply decreased.

Taken in concert with the ruling striking down critical provision of the Voting Rights Act, it would seem the conservative members of the Supreme Court are actively engaged in a campaign to put control of the U.S. government firmly in the hands of a small, wealthy elite. Forget “Big Government” and entitlement spending – this, coupled with growing income inequality, is the malignant tumor that truly threatens to end our republic. This is a trend that will almost certainly sap the life out of the democratic process. Odd that the people who so frequently use words like “freedom” and “liberty” as the clarion calls of their “Big Government” denunciations are so willing to see the United States transformed into a nation run by a handful of greedy, short-sighted multi-millionaires and billionaires.

On the bright side, at least the querulous poor aren’t calling the shots. Or the vanishing middle class. Who wants people like that in charge? With a little more work, the Supreme Court and their Republican allies will have built a glorious and divided nation. The smartest, hardest working of us will live in glorious shining cities, sparkling gems in the heart of a verdant Edens. Outside the city gates the wretched poor will ride around on makeshift buggies, sporting hockey masks and shooting each other in the throats with wrist-mounted crossbows over a gallon of gasoline. It’s the ‘Merican Dream, baby!

Here’s Jon Stewart’s marginally light-hearted take on the affair (I can’t seem to embed the video here):