An incident like the one in Charlottesville emboldens the folks who want to control your speech. Nobody wants to speak up for Nazis, of course. The speech police seize upon such an environment to suggest that, hey, what would be wrong with having government ban white supremacist speech? Thus we get hot takes like this: Matthew Walther’s piece at The Week titled Censor White Supremacy. After some head-scratching citations to writers as disparate as Stanley Fish and John Milton, Walther presents this wrong-headed peroration:
Which brings us to the recent decisions by Go Daddy and Google to deny the Daily Stormer, a neo-Nazi publication, a home on their web hosting platforms. I have yet to see anyone find fault with this decision even though realistically speaking it amounts to censorship. This is in itself a good thing, though few people have acknowledged it as such. At present it is easy to ignore the elephant in the room by saying that these are private companies free to make their own decisions about what viewpoints can be expressed on web servers that they own and control. But there are only so many web hosting services. Suppose no one was willing to offer these Hitler fanboys room to air their grievances with African-Americans and Jews on the internet — suppose that they could find no publisher willing to reproduce their pamphlets and no one willing to sell them a Xerox machine and paper to distribute them on their own?
Would it still be okay? Why is it reasonable to pretend that an action that is licit and even commendable when taken by a corporation that will soon be worth $1 trillion would be unjust if an ill-defined entity called “the state” undertook it? The world in which the government enjoys a monopoly on coercion and corporations are not state entities whose actions would not be possible without a vast infrastructure and legal apparatus in which they operate is a fantasy. The procedural question of who is responsible for the censorship is beside the point. The only relevant one is whether it is laudable.
I for one am happy that the Daily Stormer is gone. People who agree with me need to ask themselves why they would have found it upsetting if the Department of Justice had shut it down.
Look. I could launch into a long historical discussion about the founding fathers and the reasons for the passage of the First Amendment, but for now I’m just going to keep this simple. When someone tells you that, when it comes to whether the government should be authorized to shut down speech, the only relevant question is “whether [the speech] is laudable” — ask yourself: Who gets to decide that?
In Matthew Walther’s mind, of course, the answer is simple. Matthew Walther will decide for you what speech is laudable. That’s not how he would put it, of course. He would launch into a long dissertation about societal norms and what every right-thinking person believes. But boil it down, and the answer will be that Matthew Walther decides. Because coincidentally enough, whatever system Matthew Walther advocates for choosing what is laudable, Matthew Walther will find himself in agreement with the results of that system.
But when you put the government in charge of censoring speech, that’s not how it works. The government will decide for you what is laudable. If you put the Department of Justice in charge of determining what is laudable, they’re going to use their standards, Mr. Walther. Not yours. Theirs.
And government officials’ standards about what speech is “laudable” tend to revolve around whether that speech makes said government officials look good or bad.
That is how it has worked for, oh, about all of human history. They don’t care about racism, or social justice, or any of that crap, Mr. Walther. They care about themselves.
I don’t know if Matthew Walther has noticed, but the fella who chooses who heads up the Justice Department these days is not the most virulent opponent of Neo-Nazism the world has ever seen. The speech Donald Trump considers least laudable, actually, is the speech that criticizes him.
That’s the guy you want to empower to shut down speech, Matthew Walther? Really?
And if you’re a supporter of Trump, all you have to do is imagine Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama wielding the power Mr. Walther wants to give them. If that doesn’t frighten you, nothing will.
And, by the way, the references in Walther’s piece to an “ill-defined entity called ‘the state'” demonstrate Walther’s fundamental error about the critical distinction between the state and society at large. Because “the state” is actually a very simple entity to define in this context. The state is defined as the folks who get to put you in jail when you don’t do what they say.
Society can shun you. The state can send men with guns to your front door to drag you to a small room with a nasty toilet, where they lock you up and don’t give you the key to get out.
That is the difference between society and the state, Mr. Walther. And it is nothing to shrug at.
We need to be sure that our anger at racism and murderous Hitler-worshippers doesn’t turn us into sheep who surrender control over our speech to the federal government. Condemn white supremacist views, to be sure. Shun those who don’t condemn virulent racism all you want. Deny Nazis access to your privately held property. It’s your right as an American.
But don’t give the feds the power to decide whether to let you speak or not, depending on what the President of the United States happens to think is “laudable.”
That would be a huge mistake.