On 12 July, Matt Taibbi made a post on Racket News with the title, “Where have all the liberals gone?” Taibbi is a journalist who has provided exquisite analyses of a range of issues over the years. I was especially impressed with his cutting examination of the Global Financial Crisis in his 2010 book Griftopia: Bubble Machines, Vampire Squids, and the Long Con That Is Breaking America. In recent years, on Racket News, he has provided running commentaries on US politics. One of his special interests is censorship.
In his 12 July post, Taibbi opened with an account of US government documents revealing that the FBI had forwarded requests to various platforms — Facebook, YouTube, Instagram and Twitter — asking for certain topics to be censored. The FBI’s requests were made on behalf of the SBU, the Ukrainian security agency. As Taibbi put it, censorship had been outsourced to a foreign power.
This wasn’t the only example, just a particularly striking one. Taibbi referred to many other instances in which the US government has requested private companies to undertake censorship.
The government documents revealing this were released by a committee of the US House of Representatives. Here’s the cruncher: a majority of the committee members were Republicans. Taibbi was shocked and aggrieved. Then he posed his key question: “where are the rest of the ‘card-carrying’ liberals from the seventies, eighties, and nineties — people like me, who always reflexively opposed restrictions on speech?” Liberals who Taibbi calls “card-carrying” were those fully committed to liberal values.
Liberals and conservatives
In the US, a liberal is on the political left and a conservative is on the right, and these more or less align with Democrats and Republicans. Compared with other countries with representative governments, the whole US political spectrum is skewed to the right — uniquely, there has never been a significant socialist party in the country — but that does not detract from Taibbi’s concerns. Through his own experience over decades, he perceives that the liberals, who used to be at the forefront of anti-censorship efforts, are now complacent or supportive of the government aiding censorship.
At the conclusion of his short article, Taibbi put out an invitation: “I’d like to hear from anyone who has an explanation, a personal testimonial, anything. Comments are open to everyone here.”
I had my own ideas about what has been going on, and thought to add a comment. But by the time I got around to it, there were already 2500 comments. Would one more be noticed? Anyway, I was uncertain about what I would say. What follows is not a rigorous argument backed by extensive documentation, but rather an exploratory effort, an exposition of possibilities, perhaps better described as speculation, as a set of ideas that might be worth pursuing in greater depth.
Questioning the premise
Taibbi’s question assumes some sort of affinity between being a liberal and being anti-censorship. But is this correct? In wartime, there is massive censorship, and it is especially severe against opponents of war. It’s more than censorship: war resisters during US wars have been prosecuted and imprisoned. Many major wars were conducted under Democrat administrations: World War I, World War II and the first years of the Korean and Vietnam wars. These administrations were not reluctant to censor dissent and to imprison war resisters.
War seems to be a unifier, at least for the state, against critics. How does this relate to the left-right political spectrum? Traditionally, this spectrum refers to workers versus capitalist owners, in a quasi-Marxist sort of analysis. Those on the left back the working class whereas those on the right back the capitalist or ruling class. The trouble is that many issues do not map neatly onto this spectrum. War is one of them. Prior to the First World War, socialists imagined that workers would refuse to fight, in international solidarity against rulers. But instead, most workers’ parties supported their own governments. Propaganda, pioneered by the British during the so-called Great War, helped mobilise support for the war.
In subsequent decades, some on the left were active in pacifist movements, but some on the right supported isolationism, opposing US involvement in foreign wars. That same configuration has continued, in various forms, into the 2000s.
Rather than assuming liberals have some special affinity with free speech, an alternative idea is that both liberals and conservatives are keen to defend their own free speech while being ready to censor opponents. This idea is highlighted by the title of a revealing book by free-speech campaigner Nat Hentoff: Free Speech for Me — but Not for Thee: How the American Left and Right Relentlessly Censor Each Other.
Hentoff’s perspective raises a new set of queries. How can we explain patterns of censorship? A preliminary hypothesis is self-interest: groups with the power to censor do so against those who threaten their interests.
Threats and censorship
Back in the 1950s and 1960s, at the height of the Cold War, many in the US government saw communism as the greatest threat. Communism, Soviet-style, was left-wing, so most US government surveillance, harassment and repression was against communists and their perceived allies. Joseph McCarthy launched his crusade against communists in government and beyond, and this spilled into universities and Hollywood, among other areas. During that time, the most powerful forces in the US targeted those associated with the left.
In the late 1960s, one of the biggest issues in the country was the war in Vietnam, and it was against communists, so the antiwar movement was treated as left-wing. But this had little connection with the classic left-right dichotomy based on labour versus capitalists. The other big issue in the 1960s was racism. Like the antiwar movement, the civil rights and black power movements had little logical connection with the labour-capitalist framework, though in practice campaigners in these movements can find affinities with labour activists.
The FBI, under the directorship of J. Edgar Hoover, targeted any group seen as a threat to security. Whose security? It was later revealed that the main targets in the 1960s were antiwar activists and blacks. Somehow, these groups were seen as being on the left. It might make more sense to see antiwar activists as anti-state and blacks as threats to white supremacy.
Taibbi remembers what it was like back then, when liberals defended free speech, and when the targets of censorship and repression included antiwar and civil-rights campaigners. But perhaps that configuration was not inherent in the positions of these groups, but depended more on who had power and who threatened it.
Bertram Gross’s book Friendly Fascism was published in 1980. Gross, who had worked in the US government at a policy level in the 1940s and 1950s, saw signs of a US version of fascism. Gross saw the essence of fascism not in the racism and brutality of regimes in Germany, Italy and Japan in the 1920s and 1930s, but in something else: an alliance between big business and big government. Much of his analysis applies today.
It’s not necessary to accept Gross’s full picture to see that the ties, in the US and beyond, between business and government have become ever stronger, with powerful industries heavily involved in making the policies that affect them, and government running foreign policy to serve US business interests. Highlights include structural adjustment programmes to pressure governments of poor countries to adapt their economies to serve international capital, and pressure to impose expansive rules for intellectual property, again serving the interests of big capital.
If there is an alliance between, or rather interpenetration of, big government and big business, what then is the role of the distinction between left and right? On many issues, there are differences between liberals and conservatives, between Democrats and Republicans, but many of these differences are more cultural than related to political economy. Both sides support neoliberalism or what used to be called monopoly capitalism. How does this play out in relation to censorship?
In addition to the left-right political dimension, there is another distinction, between statist and anti-statist orientations. On the left, statists support big government, the welfare state and benevolent paternalism. Anti-statists on the left, in contrast, support local empowerment of communities, what has been called neighbourhood power, and workers’ control and community self-reliance.
On the right, statists support aid to corporations, military power and police power against workers and activists. Right anti-statists, in contrast, support markets, small business, limited government regulation, and local initiative. Right anti-statists include libertarians. Note that the libertarian tradition in the US is far stronger than in nearly any other country.
In this rough classification of statist and anti-statist orientations, I’ve left out connections with big business. If big government and big business are symbiotic in the US, then anti-state positions become more complicated: anti-state can become, in part, anti-big-business. This clashes with the usual idea that the right is pro-business.
The arrival of Covid-19 was a shock to the political system. Political leaders treated the pandemic as an emergency that warranted the most severe restrictions on freedoms outside of wartime. In terms of political economy, this can be thought of as the state exerting its power against dissent, in alliance with several powerful corporations, notably in the pharmaceutical and tech industries.
There is extensive evidence of censorship, in the US and elsewhere, of views contrary to the official line concerning the pandemic and control measures: lockdowns, masks, vaccines and the origin of Covid. Platforms including Google, Twitter, Facebook and YouTube censored heterodox commentary, including correct information — such as about adverse events from vaccines — that clashed with the dominant narrative. The US federal government and various agencies aided in this effort. Claims about disinformation were used to justify silencing dissent. Beyond censorship, scientists and doctors who questioned orthodoxy were targeted, with their online accounts cancelled, their medical privileges revoked and their jobs threatened.
Where were the liberals, those Taibbi thought of as the traditional defenders of free speech? The answer to this question, it seems, is nowhere. Liberals were the most enthusiastic backers of control measures. The left’s negativity about capitalists, in this case mainly the pharmaceutical and tech industries, seemed to have evaporated. Or perhaps the left, being supportive of government experts, always endorsed mainstream medicine and was hostile to natural alternatives.
But there was opposition to the orthodox line: individuals who questioned mask mandates and refused Covid vaccines. And in the US there was some pushback by figures in the media — and they were mostly associated with the political right.
When President Donald Trump came out in support of hydroxychloroquine as a treatment for Covid, he was ridiculed by defenders of orthodoxy. Trump’s role may have contributed to the assumption that questioning official medical views was the preserve of the right. Later, when there were rallies against lockdowns, the media pointed to the presence of fascists, dismissing the entire movement as right-wing, indeed lunatics. Today much of the US left lacks a strong anti-corporate thrust.
Given that the right has traditionally supported big business, the next question is why certain figures spoke out in defiance of Covid orthodoxy. I don’t know the answer. One possibility relates to the difference in values between conservatives and liberals, as elucidated by Jonathan Haidt and colleagues. According to Haidt, liberals are more likely to prioritise care, fairness and liberty. Care is also a conservative value, but not to such a high level. During the pandemic, control measures like lockdowns could resonate with liberals’ care impulses. But what happened to liberty, another moral foundation prized by liberals?
Although looking at values is intriguing, I don’t think it provides that much of an explanation, because each value can be interpreted differently. What about care for those adversely affected by lockdowns or vaccinations?
Here’s another possibility. When a few individuals identified with the right challenged Covid orthodoxy, it became convenient to tar all critics as right-wing. After this, the highly polarised state of US politics — see Ezra Klein’s book Why We’re Polarized — took over. If some individuals seen as right-wing challenged pandemic rules, liberals instinctively adhered more strongly to them, backing their views by stigmatising those on what became the other side. How much this was about Trump and how much about political views deserves investigation.
What then of the mass media and social media platforms? Why did they line up with Covid orthodoxy, taking measures to silence critics? Does this mean they don’t want to be associated with the right? Maybe not. Maybe they just went along with the dominant perspective, which is nearly always pro-big-business.
In looking at this issue, it’s useful to note that few individuals were highly informed about the evidence and arguments. Not many members of the public studied scientific papers on both sides of contentious issues like lockdowns, masks and vaccines. Most followed the lead of authorities, most commonly dominant medical and government authorities, but in some cases counter-authorities, scientists and public figures who questioned the dominant view.
For decades, I’ve been studying scientific controversies, for example over nuclear power, pesticides, fluoridation and vaccination. There is little qualitatively new about Covid controversies. Whenever experts line up with the most powerful groups with vested interests — governments, corporations or professions — there are attempts to suppress expert critics of the dominant view. That’s just what happened with Covid. The main difference is the tarring of Covid critics as right-wing. Is there any precedent for that?
Consider social movements in US history. Predictably, the labour movement has been seen to be on the left, because that’s how left and right are conceptualised. But what about movements not obviously connected to the labour-capital framework? The peace movement has been treated as left-wing, and so has the civil rights movement.
Perhaps more related to Covid is the environmental movement. Historically, you might think it aligns more naturally with conservative politics, because conservation — protection of the natural environment — is about the preservation of traditional values. This was indeed a strand of the environmental movement, at least until the 1960s, when environmentalism became associated with radicalism. Paradoxically, resisting changes in long-standing relationships became seen as radical, whereas accepting radical change caused by industrialism was seen as a conservative value.
Of all the issues I’ve studied, the one with the most parallels with Covid politics is fluoridation, the adding of fluoride to water supplies to reduce tooth decay in children. Studied in the 1940s and promoted by the US Public Health Service beginning in the 1950s, fluoridation was pushed mainly by campaigners in the dental profession and governments. And there was opposition.
How might fluoridation line up on a left-right political spectrum? It’s not immediately obvious. Although some companies stand to make money from fluoridation, it’s not a big money-spinner. One important industrial connection is with sugary-food manufacturers: dietary sugar contributes to tooth decay, so it’s convenient to instead blame a lack of fluoride. Another connection is with the aluminium industry, which generates toxic fluoride wastes: fluoride being seen as beneficial takes the pressure off industrial polluters. Given these vested interests, you might think that anti-fluoridationism would be seen as left-wing.
But no, there was another factor. Fluoridation was promoted by governments, and in the US this triggered opposition by some right-wing groups, including the John Birch Society and the Ku Klux Klan.
The American Dental Association used this to link anti-fluoridationists with right-wing extremists (and with those labelled health nuts), and this association stuck despite the lack of an obvious tie with conservative politics.
If fluoridation had been initiated twenty years later, after the rise of the environmental movement, it’s possible that fluoride would have been seen primarily as a pollutant to be opposed. In this alternative history, anti-fluoridationism might have been painted as left-wing rather than right-wing. The implication is that categorising issues politically can depend on the times, rather than being inherent in the issue.
This page is from a 1965 issue of the Journal of the American Dental Association, introducing a dossier on opponents of fluoridation, including the John Birch Society, the Ku Klux Klan, various fringe groups and a few respectable doctors and scientists who were tarred by association.
Matt Taibbi asked, in essence, “In Covid times, where are the anti-censorship liberals?” In other words, why have figures on the right in the US taken the lead in opposing censorship? I started by questioning the assumption that, in the US, the left has an automatic affinity with free speech, noting that in wartime, the left and right are equally likely to support censorship.
Another explanation for patterns is that groups defend their own free speech but not that of political rivals. Throughout the Cold War, anti-communism was dominant in the US, so leftists were prime targets for silencing. But that was decades ago, and on many issues the framework of labour-versus-capital provides limited insight.
Furthermore, strangely, the left is no longer automatically suspicious of big business. During the pandemic, Big Pharma had the greatest stake in control measures, especially vaccination, and in silencing critics. Contrary to the usual assumption about political alignments, certain voices associated with conservative politics were most prominent in supporting free speech in the face of government and big tech censorship.
It might be argued that stigmatising challengers to Covid orthodoxy as right-wing extremists was a convenient manoeuvre that became a self-fulfilling prophecy. In a country with highly polarised politics, issues that are not inherently left or right can nevertheless end up being identified with one position, and tribal tendencies accentuate the tendency.
This explanation is speculative, and there are quite a few anomalies, for example left-wing voices defending free speech against Covid-related censorship. For deeper understanding, a more comprehensive historical and political analysis would be needed. In any case, whatever your preferred answer, Taibbi’s question is a good one.
Brian Martin, firstname.lastname@example.org
Thanks to Jungmin Choi, Sue Curry Jansen, Julia LeMonde, Susan Maret and Lorraine Pratley for valuable suggestions.
Comment by Sue Curry Jansen
I agree with much of what you say in this post. In my view, the counter-currents of contemporary U.S. censorship debates are mind-boggling. Left-Right, Liberal-Conservative hardly expresses it. The billionaire donors behind the scenes have captured both sides as political campaigns for any national office are insanely expensive with national media among the major beneficiaries of the largesse. The misnomer “populism” is attached to the polarization and the so-called culture wars keep the fires burning.
A recent book review I wrote comes close to identifying what I think is at stake. It is not whether speech is to be protected, but whose speech. The U.S. right wants to maintain the status quo ante by silencing the emergent voices of historically marginalized groups, banning books, controlling curricula and negating educators’ and librarians’ professional expertise and autonomy, funding extreme right-wing speakers on campuses in hopes of inciting violence that will backfire against the left, controlling women’s bodies, fighting gay and trans rights; while the left has imposed speech codes on campuses in attempts to peacefully integrate higher education and avoid sanctions from equal opportunity commissions. It has created feminist, ethnic, and gay studies courses or majors, avoided hosting speakers opposed to diversity/multiculturalism, and when possible influenced major media to give greater voice to historically marginalized groups, especially in light of the Black Lives Matter Movement. In so doing, it has played into the hands of the right as shown by these college free-speech rankings.
The solution, as most college administrators and librarians have affirmed, is freeing free speech: that is, modeling open, civil, debate in a search for truth. Unfortunately we are way past that. The mainstream U.S. press is in a similar bind as indicated by this thoughtful analysis by the editor of The New Republic.