This week Kevin Williamson unlocked another level in his new career as a right wing free speech martyr with a whining column in the Wall Street Journal. He’s not alone. Being hounded out of credible venues is the new mark of distinction on the right. As their last drops of intellectual credibility drain away, the jilted remnants of the rightwing intelligentsia are rallying for a last stand around “free speech.”
Thanks to the new rightwing passion for free speech, you can’t get through an awkward family dinner with your drunk uncle without some reference to “campus radicals” shutting down speakers. Free speech has become the new birther crisis or Clinton email scandal, the defining concern of the right. As Republicans gear up to pervert the 1st Amendment just as they distorted the 2nd, it would be good for us all to get reacquainted with the meaning and importance of our free speech values.
Neither the 1st Amendment, nor any moral or intellectual notion of free speech grants me a right to be taken seriously. No one has a 1st Amendment right to be invited to speak on campus, be interviewed on TV, teach a class in a university, or get a featured column in The Atlantic. Freedom of speech is not equality of ideas. Our investment in free intellectual exchange doesn’t mean we shut down our rational faculties and treat every idea as equal on the merits. Freedom of speech gives us freedom to express ourselves without repression from our government. It is not a defense of lousy ideas. Rightwing complaints about free speech are an effort to gain some sort of protected status, the only way for these sad, entitled snowflakes to preserve a platform when their ideas have failed.
When I bring to a free marketplace of ideas an ideology that is bigoted, ugly, violent, or just plain dumb, the values of free speech give me no right to be treated with respect or dignity. And when my ideas are both intellectually unsound and threatening toward others, I should expect that others will exercise their own rights of free speech to express their displeasure. My right to an opinion doesn’t require anyone else to treat it with unearned dignity.
Kevin Williamson, Christina Hoff Summers, Ben Shapiro, and the rest of the right wing trollosphere are not “controversial.” They are performers. Their interest in free speech does not extend beyond the steam of their own breath. The National Review does not publish Ta-Nehisi Coates. Laura Ingraham does not engage in intellectual exchanges with those of other viewpoints. Modern conservatives have no interest in reasoned debate.
Conservatism today is little more than an identity assigned at birth, like being a Cleveland Browns fan. You’re either in the cult or you aren’t. The overwhelming majority of so-called conservative thought is manufactured by a few outlets, mostly underwritten by the Koch or Mercer families. People don’t independently sit down to reason through our toughest policy challenges and arrive at Republican talking points. Stripped of inbred religious bias and racism, no element of the modern conservative policy agenda makes sense. Today’s conservative ideas have none of the persuasive power required to gain currency in a marketplace of ideas. That was not always the case.
Conservatism has a powerful, lost intellectual heritage. Milton Friedman was brilliant in debate. William F. Buckley engaged in fascinating and insightful interactions with figures like Gore Vidal and James Baldwin. Such a debate with conservatives was possible because men like Buckley and Friedman accepted the bounds of fact and reason. They weren’t paid hacks spouting canned slogans. That commitment to facts has been obliterated on the right, replaced by cult loyalty premised on a racial and religious identity. Debating a conservative is like trying to convince a mental patient that the voices in their head aren’t real.
Efforts by rightwing trolls to climb though the unlocked windows of college campuses and have their picture taken at a podium are about performance and victimhood. These are desperate efforts to manufacture relevance. So-called conservatives are trying to convince their cult followers that their failure to succeed in a free exchange of ideas is evidence of injustice rather than incompetence. Stripped of any intellectual weight, survival of modern conservatism depends on convincing young white people, especially boys, that nothing awaits them in the wider world of intellectual exchange but identity-based persecution. Conservatives must persuade a rising generation of whites to close their minds before they discover the truth and are lost to the movement forever. Having abandoned reason, surivival depends on a fear-driven campaign to keep their heirs locked inside the compound.
Williamson didn’t lose his job because of an off-hand tweet about abortion. He lost his job because there was nothing else in his work to justify his presence on that platform.
The 1st Amendment grants me a sacred right to say that dog owners are dumb, Hitler was great, veterans are terrible, or even to claim that women who received abortions should be hanged. It doesn’t require The Atlantic or anyone else to let me write for them. The 1st Amendment grants Williamson the right to express his ideas without government oppression. A free market of ideas which emerged from those 1st Amendment protections placed a value on his ideas, a value so low that he’s on his way back to the fetid ghetto of conservative media. This is a golden age of free speech.
As our culture becomes more inclusive, more tolerant – and as direct consequence, more intellectually competitive – expect to hear a lot more whining from people who’ve grown used to unearned deference. Conservative “thinkers” are waking to a terrible dawn. Thanks to decades of cult reasoning on the right, the public increasingly places conservatives in a category of cranks. You can’t get a job at a major publication anywhere in the world as an Anarchist, Segregationist, Communist, Nazi, Baathist, vaccine denier, climate denier or Maoist. There’s nothing wrong with that. American conservatives are working their way into that category of deplorables, one bigoted tweet at a time.
Our 1st Amendment grants you the right to wander around in a Nazi armband, wave a Confederate flag, or wear a MAGA hat. It doesn’t require anyone to respect you, like you, or hope you don’t fall in an open manhole. If “freedom of speech” is your only claim to a public platform, it would be wise to reexamine your life choices.