The Phony Liberal Free Speech Freakout
There's no such thing as cancel culture and we'll ruin your life if you disagree
According to a national poll commissioned by The New York Times, 84% of Americans believe it’s a problem that some of their fellow citizens refrain from expressing opinions in “everyday situations out of fear of retaliation or harsh criticism.” Overwhelming majorities of the young and old, Democrats and Republicans, and men and women agree that self-censorship—an inherently hidden and therefore hard-to-quantify consequence of “cancel culture”—is a real and important dilemma.
Included among that majority is the Times editorial board, which made the findings of the poll the centerpiece of an anodyne 2,500-word editorial last week entitled “America Has a Free Speech Problem.” Criticizing both progressives who “refuse to acknowledge that cancel culture exists at all” and conservatives who promote “laws that would ban books, stifle teachers, and discourage open discussion in classrooms,” the editorial decried “this social silencing, this depluralizing of America.”
Only 5% of Americans in the national poll believe that the new wave of censoriousness sweeping the country is “not at all serious,” a small faction that, judging by the overheated reaction to the editorial, seems to consist almost exclusively of elite journalists. Usually a fringe viewpoint mustering such negligible support—like, say, the belief that Earth is flat, or that the movie musical Cats was a good idea—merits little more than ridicule from the mainstream media. But when it comes to the minoritarian contention that the very existence of cancel culture is a hoax, that there is, contra the Times, no free speech crisis in the United States, it’s bleated loudly and widely by the people with the largest microphones.
“If I still worked for the NYT, I would seriously think about quitting today,” one former Timesman declared in a missive retweeted more than 3,000 times and representative of the Eighth Avenue Freak Out. “There is no such things [sic] as cancel culture,” announced Jeff Jarvis, who somehow parlayed writing capsule reviews for TV Guide 30 years ago into a well-remunerated gig dispensing pablum as the self-appointed guru of internet journalism. With its scandalous editorial, Jarvis said, the Times has proven its “sympathy with the white-right.” Matt Duss, a former foreign policy blogger turned senior adviser to Sen. Bernie Sanders, chimed in with an observation apparently intended to imply hypocrisy on the part of the paper. “For example, try searching for ‘Amnesty International report, apartheid’ on the @nytimes website,” he wrote. Not that he’s obsessed with Jews or anything.
To be sure, the writers of the Times editorial did not help their case by warning in its opening sentence that “Americans are losing hold of a fundamental right as citizens of a free country: the right to speak their minds and voice their opinions in public without fear of being shamed or shunned.” There is no legal protection from being “shamed or shunned,” nor should there be. But in attacking this witless conflation of the First Amendment with a nonexistent right not to be criticized, the critics of the Times editorial are ravaging a straw man. The free speech crisis in the United States today is not primarily governmental but social, as the culture of free speech that once prevailed in our leading institutions—from the academy to the Times itself—is under threat.
For a vivid example of just how much this once-robust culture has degenerated, witness the appalling episode that transpired at Yale Law School just a week before the Times published its editorial. On March 10, Yale’s Federalist Society chapter hosted a bipartisan free speech event featuring a progressive speaker and a conservative speaker. Taking hysterical umbrage at the mere presence of someone with whom they disagree, more than 100 students invaded the room where the event was taking place and noisily disrupted the proceedings. One protestor told a fellow student, a Federalist Society member, that she would “literally fight you, bitch.” The mob’s chanting was sufficiently loud to be heard on different floors of the building.
Thus far, nearly two-thirds of YLS students have signed an open letter in support of the “peaceful student protestors,” a depressing testament to just how prevalent the abandonment of basic free speech principles has become among our nation’s future leaders. The antics in New Haven prompted U.S. Circuit Court Judge Laurence Silberman to circulate an email among his colleagues on the federal bench urging them to “carefully consider whether any student” who participated in the mob “should be disqualified for potential clerkships.”
Elsewhere in the Times, I found an even better rebuke to these conquistadors of cancel culture. “The most right-wing—I don’t get why they aren’t allowed to come to colleges. Where does it stop? People don’t like what I say? So what. I’m allowed to say it, and I live in the greatest country,” John Waters tells the Times Magazine. If he had not earned stardom as the “Pope of Trash,” Waters says his dream job would be working as a criminal defense lawyer for “the worst people in the world,” a noble if unpopular vocation among our rising legal eagles, who brook no moral distinction between criminal defendants and their counsel. “The right used to be my censors,” Waters adds. “They aren’t anymore. I don’t have any. If I did, it would be young woke liberals.”
Unsurprisingly, the events at Yale went unremarked upon by the journalistic elites who deny the very existence of cancel culture. To condemn the students would hit too close to home. As their reaction to last week’s Times editorial demonstrates, mob-like behavior is a tactic they have perfected.