By dint of personality and profession, I’m pretty close to a free speech absolutist. I imagine most writers are. Restraints on artistic or literary expression shouldn’t be dictated by some vague notion of cultural acceptability. We wouldn’t be a better society if we were still smuggling copies of Lady Chatterley’s Lover instead of buying them on Amazon.
James Madison didn’t write the First Amendment with erotica in mind. He wanted to prevent the government from squelching dissent — or, as he originally worded it, to ensure that people “shall not be deprived or abridged of their right to speak, to write, or to publish their sentiments; and the freedom of the press, as one of the great bulwarks of liberty, shall be inviolable.”
The amendment’s final language isn’t as categorical as Madison’s draft. Still, until the last year or so, we seemed to understand that “Congress shall make no law …” meant Congress. The First Amendment restrains the government.
So for a free speech near-absolutist, there’s no contradiction between these two statements:
1. I support Tucker Carlson’s right to embrace white supremacy and spread deranged conspiracy theories.
2. We should run Tucker Carlson off the air.
On April 8, the Fox News host embraced the Great Replacement, the theory that a globalist cabal is conspiring to replace Anglo-Saxons with immigrants. Seeing as this white-supremacist favorite has inspired multiple mass murderers, you’d think Carlson — who has already shed advertisers like pine trees shed pollen over racist and otherwise offensive comments — would choose his words more carefully. Instead, he mocked “the left and all the little gatekeepers on Twitter [who] become literally hysterical if you use the term ‘replacement.’”
Five days later, Carlson said something equally irresponsible: “At some point — no one is asking this, but everyone should be — what is this about? If vaccines work, why are vaccinated people still banned from living normal lives? … So maybe it doesn’t work, and they’re simply not telling you that. Well, you hate to think that, especially if you’ve gotten two shots. But what’s the other potential explanation? We can’t think of one.”
It’s evidently too much work to call the CDC or do a Google search before suggesting to an audience predisposed to vaccine skepticism that there’s a cover-up. (By the way, lots of people are asking these questions, and lots of people think the CDC is too cautious. Right or wrong, the CDC is concerned about vaccinated people transmitting COVID-19 to non-vaccinated people.)
Carlson’s mouth diarrhea could and probably will get someone killed. Even so — as appealing as the UK’s media regulatory system sometimes seems — it’s not the government’s job to shut him down. But if public pressure saw to it that he ended up in Times Square shouting at strangers about the Mark of the Beast, that would be the market doing its thing.
Actions have consequences. They used to, anyway.
But then conservatives found a new fetish, what U.S. Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, hyperbolically labeled a “fundamental threat to free speech rights” and “the biggest threat to freedom we face.” More accurately, it’s a manufactured panic designed to blur the lines between opprobrium and censorship.
Consequences have become “cancel culture.”
It works like this: Georgia Republicans, losing control of the state, make it more difficult for Black people to vote. There’s a backlash — cancel culture. Major League Baseball relocates the All-Star Game from Atlanta to Colorado — also cancel culture. Republicans, realizing they look like the reincarnation of Bull Connor, throw a conniption about the “woke mob” and threaten “serious consequences” if businesses choose not to damage their reputations by associating with bigots.
So five anti-cancel-culture senators propose going-nowhere legislation to punish baseball for “enforcing a woke standard,” as Ted Cruz told reporters, by revoking the antitrust exemption granted to MLB by a 1922 Supreme Court ruling — not cancel culture (somehow).
One of Cruz’s co-sponsors is Josh Hawley, a leader of the Jan. 6 Sedition Caucus. After the mob stormed the Capitol, Simon & Schuster canceled his book deal (or, more precisely, dumped it on a conservative imprint). Hawley immediately cried martyr: “It’s a direct assault on the First Amendment. Only approved speech can now be published. This is the Left looking to cancel everyone they don’t approve of.”
Hawley’s book is being released next month; needless to say, it wasn’t a First Amendment “assault,” as the government didn’t block Simon & Schuster from publishing it. The book, The Tyranny of Big Tech, engages another cancel-culture hobbyhorse: the “techno-oligarchy,” which has been in the crosshairs since Republicans began complaining — all evidence to the contrary — that social media sites were blacklisting them. Those complaints reached a fever pitch when Twitter and Facebook began fact-checking Donald Trump during the 2020 campaign and deplatformed him after the insurrection.
For Hawley, being canceled is big business. In the first quarter of 2020, he raised $3 million. He’s not alone. Cruz — who went all-in on the Dr. Seuss “cancellation” — raised $5.4 million despite his ill-advised Cancun adventure. Even the most reviled member of Congress, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-QAnon, raked in $3.2 million.
Success in modern conservatism boils down to one thing: performative aggrievement. The more “the left” or “the media” or “the elites” attack, the better. Nothing else matters — not policy, not truthfulness, not even likeability. It certainly doesn’t matter whether the attacks are justified. Victimhood is its own reward.
That’s why Tucker Carlson won’t face any consequences, by the way. There’s no line he can cross that would be worse for Fox News than canceling him.
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