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.