The pandemic, free speech, and censorship

Famed journalist Matt Taibbi speaks out about the danger of silencing dissenting or contradictory voices in the current crisis.

Earlier this week, Atlantic magazine – fast becoming the favored media outlet for self-styled intellectual elites of the Aspen Institute type – ran an in-depth article of the problems free speech pose to American society in the coronavirus era. The headline:

Internet Speech Will Never Go Back to Normal

In the debate over freedom versus control of the global network, China was largely correct, and the U.S. was wrong.

Authored by a pair of law professors from Harvard and the University of Arizona, Jack Goldsmith and Andrew Keane Woods, the piece argued that the American and Chinese approaches to monitoring the Internet were already not that dissimilar:

Constitutional and cultural differences mean that the private sector, rather than the federal and state governments, currently takes the lead in these practices… But the trend toward greater surveillance and speech control here, and toward the growing involvement of government, is undeniable and likely inexorable.

They went on to list all the reasons that, given that we’re already on an “inexorable” path to censorship, a Chinese-style system of speech control may not be such a bad thing. In fact, they argued, a benefit of the coronavirus was that it was waking us up to “how technical wizardry, data centralization, and private-public collaboration can do enormous public good.”

Perhaps, they posited, Americans could be moved to reconsider their “understanding” of the First and Fourth Amendments, as “the harms from digital speech” continue to grow, and “the social costs of a relatively open Internet multiply.”

This interesting take on the First Amendment was the latest in a line of “Let’s rethink that whole democracy thing” pieces that began sprouting up in earnest four years ago. Articles with headlines like “Democracies end when they become too democratic” and “Too much of a good thing: why we need less democracy” became common after two events in particular: Donald Trump’s victory in the the Republican primary race, and the decision by British voters to opt out of the EU, i.e. “Brexit.”

A consistent lament in these pieces was the widespread decline in respect for “experts” among the ignorant masses, better known as the people Trump was talking about when he gushed in February 2016, “I love the poorly educated!

The Atlantic was at the forefront of the argument that The People is a Great Beast, one that cannot be trusted to play responsibly with the toys of freedom. A 2016 piece called “American politics has gone insane” pushed a return of the “smoke-filled room” to help save voters from themselves. Author Jonathan Rauch employed a metaphor that is striking in retrospect, describing America’s oft-vilified intellectual and political elite as society’s immune system:

Americans have been busy demonizing and disempowering political professionals and parties, which is like spending decades abusing and attacking your own immune system. Eventually, you will get sick.

The new piece by Goldsmith and Woods says we’re there, made literally sick by our refusal to accept the wisdom of experts. The time for asking the (again, literally) unwashed to listen harder to their betters is over. The Chinese system offers a way out. When it comes to speech, don’t ask: tell.

. . .

We do actually have to talk about this. We can’t not talk about it out of fear of being censored, or because we’re confusing real harm with political harm.

Turning ourselves into China for any reason is the definition of a cure being worse than the disease. The scolders who are being seduced by such thinking have to wake up, before we end up adding another disaster on top of the terrible one we’re already facing.

There’s more at the link.

I couldn’t agree more.  I, too, have noticed the Atlantic becoming more and more dictatorial in its approach, more prescriptive to society, less willing to tolerate independent thought, dissent, and contrary opinions.  I don’t know why, but I suspect there’s more than a little outside money involved.  “Follow the money” is usually a pretty accurate indicator of why something is happening.

When you silence dissent and conflicting opinions, you take away freedom.  It’s as simple as that.  Without free speech, you are no longer free as an individual, and the society in which you live is no longer a free society.  Two quotes attributed (falsely) to Voltaire, but which do accurately express his philosophy, sum it up:

I may disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.

To learn who rules over you, simply find out who you are not allowed to criticize.

They say a mouthful!



  1. Hey Peter;

    It is more of "Our betters know what is best for us" kind of governance". By education and association they believe that they know what is best for us and if we peons would just get with the program. In 2016 we helped elect the most uncouth barbarian bypassing the most qualified candidate in the world…remember that?. It is a continuation of that. It is a continuation of the new electronic feudal system that they are trying to push on the rest of us.

  2. Free speech for me, not for thee. As Mr. Garabaldi states, they are just superior beings.

  3. some years back I would occasionally read an ATLANTIC article. Gave up on it 4-5 years ago. I'm staying ATLANTIC-free.

  4. I gave up on the Atlantic when they printed an article about the "Teabaggers". Yes, they actually named the Tea Party protesters IN PRINT as "Teabaggers". And apparently the layers of fact-checkers and editors were just fine with that. So I stopped giving money to people who hate me.

  5. One has to wonder if this so called "free speech" debate is being driven by a perceived lack of civics education in a larger and larger portion of the population that just doesn't understand what the purpose of the first amendment is and more importantly that government, as designed not as it is currently more and more implemented, is the servant of The People, not the other way around.

  6. It's intentional – they dumb down the masses so that they will more readily follow the leaders the elite put in front of them.

    Unfortunately this "elite" is not the altruistic bunch from Kornbluth's "March of the Morons".

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