Exploding the myths about free speech

Cory Doctorow has a good essay where he critiques the recent alarms sounded by conservatives (triggered by the banning of Alex Jones and his Infowars from some social media platforms) that the left is dominating the digital media world. These conservatives are arguing that America always used to be a country where people would ‘fight to the death’ to defend the right of those with opposing views to express themselves, and that that ethos is now disappearing. Doctorow says that this rosy view of the past is rubbish.

America is a country where union organizers would be kidnapped by mobs hired by the town’s richest citizens, beaten, covered in molten tar, dipped in feathers, and dumped at the city limits. It’s a country where white sheriffs, with the support of wealthy white townsfolk, sicced attack-dogs on peaceful black protesters. It’s a country where the Klan operated with impunity, routinely murdering and mutilating black people who voiced even the most timid and innocuous professions of equality. It’s a country where registering black people to vote could lead to your secret execution, with the killers going free.

It’s a country where business owners used their right to police speech on private spaces to fire workers who were trade unionists, or communists — even after laws were passed banning this practice, they kept doing it.

It’s a country where unarmed protesters were met with tanks, teargas and militarized police.

And the thing is, that’s all terrible. America has never been a nation where people may disagree with what you say, but defend to the death your right to say it. Old chestnuts like, “Well, of course you can’t shout fire in a crowded theater” come from court-cases where people were imprisoned for speaking out against a war.

America is a place where people holding establishment-friendly views that did not threaten the super-rich would fight to the death to defend the free speech of other people who held establishment-friendly views, even if they disagreed about the particulars. It was also a place where those people would find common cause in firing, arresting, beating, and murdering people holding views that threatened the status quo and the power of white supremacy and financial dominance.


  1. says

    These conservatives are arguing that America always used to be a country where people would ‘fight to the death’ to defend the right of those with opposing views to express themselves

    You mean the white supremacists that created and ran the US bent over backwards to listen to the slaves, or even the poor white people that they stomped in the first rebellion over taxation? That’s news to me.

  2. Holms says

    Funnily enough, the ones that are outraged at the ‘suppression’ of Alex Jones’ free speech are also the ones that want punishments for those that protest America’s nazis, forced deportation of brown people, or even just those that kneel during the anthem. Weird.

  3. Loren Petrich says

    I have very little sympathy for conservatives on this issue. Very, very little sympathy for them. They are the ones who are always saying that capitalism should be unfettered and that business should have the absolute right to do whatever they want (the businesses, of course), and that anyone who objects to capitalist misbehavior is a socialist crybaby who can always find another job or become a customer of another business.

    So when their beloved big businesses do things like fire James Damore or remove Alex Jones’s channel, I have very little sympathy. They made their bed, and they must lie in it.

  4. PhdStew says

    This is about as accurate as ” America always used to be a country where people would ‘fight to the death’ to defend democracy” and related bullcrap

  5. lanir says

    As a purely practical matter I find it isn’t very useful to deny somrone’s right to say and do stupid things. They’re just going to do and say those things anyway. But I don’t agree to automatically forfeit my right to call them on it or stop listening.

    On those occasions where the shoe is on the other foot I have found this approach to be quite popular.

  6. says

    The flipside of this is that a perception of increasingly annoying troublemakers engaged in all manner of disruptive protest as a worryingly worsening trend exists when the reality is the opposite (including the bad parts like actual violence such as bombings, etc.). For better or for worse, we as a society are more “tame” and the willingness to stand up to authority in such ways is diminishing rather than increasing over the last century.

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