Daniel Greenfield, a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the Freedom Center, is an investigative journalist and writer focusing on the radical left and Islamic terrorism.
Don’t like millionaire black nationalists in the NFL refusing to stand for the anthem?
Too bad! It’s freedom of speech.
The same left that decided James Damore didn’t have freedom of speech at Google now insists that football players have it at the NFL. Never mind that the Google engineer was unknown until his firing while NFL players are celebrities whose behavior is televised nationwide to audiences of millions.
The left’s recent reunion with free speech came after vocally insisting that free speech was harmful, hurtful and racist. And the reunion didn’t last long. Right after insisting that the right of NFL black nationalists not to stand for the anthem was free speech, the left pivoted to accusing those players still standing for the anthem of “white supremacy”.
It’s only free speech if the left agrees.
The First Amendment protects unpopular speech as much as it protects popular speech. But popular speech doesn’t need much protecting. It’s unpopular speech that has to be defended.
And the nature of unpopular speech has changed. The anthem protests are a sign of how much.
When standing for the anthem becomes unpopular speech while demeaning it is popular speech, then the old measures of what kind of free speech needs defending no longer look anything like they used to.
Standing for the anthem has become the new counterculture. The question is, how do we protect it?
The biggest threat to free speech isn’t really government action. At least not right now. The Obama era saw ugly crimes against free speech that ranged from the arrest of a filmmaker for a YouTube video offending Muslims to eavesdropping on reporters to using the DOJ to investigate jokes about Obama.
But the real free speech threat was a crowdsourced culture war which manufactured its own social sanctions. The culture war is the collision between a secular leftist value system that its followers seek to forcefully impose on the entire country and the existing system of American values. When these two sets of opposing values collide, as they do when conservative speakers come to campus, Christian photographers refuse to participate in gay weddings or a tech company employee questions diversity, the most obvious victim is free speech. But free speech is always the first casualty of the culture war.
Speech is the lifeblood of culture. To win a culture war, you have to shut the other side up.
In the first phase of the culture war, the left seized the commanding heights of the media. Movies, television, music, newspapers and radio were consolidated into a network echoing the same ideas. This was largely done without any compulsion though victims of the old Fairness Doctrine might disagree. Outliers like conservative talk radio remained, but much like FOX News, they highlighted the homogeneity of the rest of the media. Everyone was getting the same set of political ideas all the time.
And, most impressively, a massive propaganda machine had been built without any of the brutality of the old USSR. Instead the machinery of capitalism had created a monopoly constantly spewing socialism.
But the old infrastructure model was quickly disrupted by the arrival of the internet.
The media coup had monopolized speech by monopolizing infrastructure. If you had enough licenses, printing presses and broadcasting facilities, you didn’t have to forcibly silence anyone. They just couldn’t be heard over the roar of your media machine.
The internet broke that model. Anyone could speak to millions with a site, a blog and a tweet.
Control was quickly reasserted. The media’s old stable brands were diversified with millennial internet brands. BuzzFeed and CNN might be wildly different in style, but they were vehicles for the same political message. The left still had the advertising industry connections and the networks to dominate messaging. Its entertainment side was expert at commodifying cool.
But the internet in general, and social media specifically, had altered the power relationship.
CNN and the New York Times didn’t care if you disagreed with them. You could try writing letters to the editor. You might even summon a small protest outside their headquarters. And it wouldn’t shake their monopoly over speech in any way. But speech on the internet is crowdsourced. The algorithms can be rigged, and occasionally are, but individuals still have too much choice and too much voice.
You couldn’t talk back to your TV. But you can talk back to CNN. And people can hear you.
The second phase of the culture war can only be won by controlling everyone’s free speech. The media has been trying to rig the game at the big tech company level. It’s gotten Facebook and Google to agree to political censorship under the guise of fighting “fake news” with “fact checking”. But even the term “fake news”, once the banner headline of the media’s censorship crusade, was hijacked by Trump.
Once upon a time, derailing a media narrative in such a short time would have been nearly impossible.
And that’s why the second phase of the culture war is underway. The internet has made it impossible to proceed with the culture war without destroying free speech. It’s why the New York Times is running serial anti-free speech pieces (even while condemning President Trump for threatening free speech).
The only way for the left to win the second phase is to either fundamentally change the structure of the internet so that it more closely resembles its old media model or to silence everyone who opposes it.
Changing the internet is an ambition that the American left now shares with leftist regimes like the People’s Republic of China. But even with the consolidation of the internet in the hands of a handful of big companies, Google, Amazon, Facebook, etc, it remains an improbable project. The hysteria over election tampering doesn’t just serve the purposes of the Dem coup plot against Trump. It also creates a casus belli for political “fake news” censorship and deeper changes to individual agency on the internet.
If China and (ironically) Russia ever get their dream of a completely censorable internet, it will be the left that built it for them as part of a plot against free speech disguised as a xenophobic political panic.
But the easier course is still crowdsourced censorship under the guidance of the media network.
Surveys show that the generation that came of age in the wild and open spaces of the internet is also the most illiberal when it comes to free speech. Growing up screaming at each other in YouTube comments sections and Xbox Live tournaments has made for touchiness, not tolerance.
The culture war of identity politics is a natural fit for the most diverse and narcissistic generation whose greatest skill is still being nasty to other people on the internet while playing the heroic victim.
If you’re going to crowdsource censorship, it helps to keep your censors personally invested. And that’s what identity politics does. It also doesn’t hurt that some of the worst violations of the Constitution in the last several generations were enacted in the name of fighting bigotry. If you are going to end free speech, the best flag to fly is still anti-racism. And if you’re going to demean the anthem, do it by claiming to be the victim of racism even when you’re a privileged black nationalist celebrity who sees more money in one year than most working people of any race will ever see in an entire lifetime.
The quiet reshaping of the national culture is no longer an option. The culture war uses harassment, shaming and even violence to silence speech by those it opposes and to impose its speech instead.
And that is the overlooked element in the free speech debate.
It’s not just about silencing those you don’t like. It’s about creating a safe space in which your views are the only ones that can be heard. Professional victimhood is the pose of professional victimizers. And the best evidence of that is how easily they turn to violence when they don’t get their own way. Social justice crybullies go from shouting, “I can’t breathe” to wrapping their hands around their victim’s necks.
The culture war is a conflict between two sets of values. These values are meaningful and personal. Like the anthem, they stir our hearts, command our respect and embody the best of us.
And the left wages its culture war by attacking American values while demanding respect for its own.
The anthem must be disrespected, but Black Lives Matter can’t be criticized. Piss Christ must be displayed in museums, but don’t you dare wear a sombrero for Halloween. Speakers who praise Hamas and call for the murder of Jews are welcome on campus. But there’s no room for thinkers who praise free enterprise.
This is what a culture war looks like. And its first casualty is free speech.
The left doesn’t reject free speech because it’s a bunch of easily triggered “snowflakes”. It rejects free speech because it wants absolute power. And the first step is killing a free and open society.