Making the World Safe by Regulating the Right

The Unintended Consequences of Cracking Down

By Richard Goldstein

Someone defaced this mural by turning Bernie Sanders into Pepe the Frog. The artist wants the vandal to be charged with a hate crime.

It was shocking. Scary. Surreal. A revelation that democracy is fragile. We look back on the tolerance of extremist views with the regret of a smoker who has just received a diagnosis of lung cancer. How can we cut out the malignancy before it spreads further?

The cancer metaphor is tempting, but this situation is not a disease. It’s the murderous manifestation of a political tendency that has material as well as symbolic roots. It’s a thoroughly American, racist backlash, but some version of it is going on across the Western world. It’s truly threatening, but so is the prospect of a crackdown that unleashes its own metastasis, until the range of political discourse is shaped by group consensus, and public expression becomes a privilege rather then a right. I worry about that, but I also worry about the Proud Boys and the boogaloo. I would be their victim several times over. In the current situation, I’m not sure where the boundary between dissent and hatred lies. For now, I have more qualms than declarations.

Question: Is it right to condemn violence on the right, but not on the left? Nicholas Kristof, resident puritan at The New York Times, says we should focus on the right because it’s more dangerous than the left. But is danger the only basis on which we distinguish justifiable violence from the indefensible sort? Aren’t we also influenced in our judgement by the principles that inspire the destruction? Is political violence always wrong, or is there such a thing as righteous mayhem? I think there is — but who gets to decide what that concept means?

Question: Should we organize a movement to throw Fox News off the air? A growing chorus of liberals — from Kristof to several commentators on MSNBC — think we should. Media Matters For America, which monitors “news or commentary that is not accurate, reliable, or credible and that forwards the conservative agenda,” is organizing a Drop Fox campaign. The First Amendment, these liberals point out, doesn’t prohibit boycotts of advertisers or cable operators who host an offensive channel. The rationale here is that Fox spreads falsehoods rather than news, and this steady diet of fraudulent info incites the far right. But the audience for Fox is much broader than violent extremists. Aren’t these viewers entitled to a media sounding box that doesn’t pass a litmus test for responsibility administered by liberals? Kristof says our cable fees shouldn’t be used to support a network as offensive as Fox is. This is a woke version of the argument made by conservatives who wanted to defund the National Endowment for the Arts in the 1980s — why should taxpayer dollars subsidize transgressive artists? It’s never mentioned that fans of radical art also pay taxes, or that Fox viewers pay cable fees. Why wouldn’t those viewers demand that MSNBC be removed from its tier because of liberal biases?

Lawsuits such as the ones being lobbed at Fox News are an important way for people and businesses to protect themselves from abuse, but libel laws can also be an instrument of harassment. Rich and powerful people have long used these laws to protect themselves from criticism. In any case, truthfulness has never been the test of a free press; nor does accuracy prevent coverage so slanted that it is false at the core. Question: Should litigation be used to stifle a network that broadcasts sometimes dangerous information? How we address this question may affect much more than our response to right-wing violence. Zoom recently removed the link to an NYU meeting featuring a Palestinian activist who advocates “all means of struggle,” after objections from a pro-Israeli group. An artist whose mural of Bernie Sanders was defaced by turning him into Pepe the Frog has demanded that the vandal be charged with a hate crime. A musician who attended the Trump rally in Washington, but did not invade the Capitol, was dropped by his record label after photos of him circulated on social media. Imagine a world where intense political disputes are regulated by lawsuits and consumer pressure. Is the current rush to repress extremist views the sign of a broader spirit of censorship? Stay tuned.

Question: Should we reach out to Trump supporters or drive them to the margins of political life? A lot of wind has been expelled by both the right and left against the spirit of kumbaya. The word has come to mean a naive or phony attempt at reconciliation (although I’d venture that plenty of liberals who mock the k-word once sang the song from where it comes). This raises a more fundamental question: are bad people redeemable? If someone apologizes for a racist or sexist comment, should that gesture be accepted, or should the penitent be banished nonetheless? Can we ever forgive a bigot who acknowledges guilt and insists that he or she has changed? Does amazing grace actually exist?

Question: If we succeeded in banishing extremist right-wing ideology from from the media, would it go away? Or would it morph, sustained by new venues and codes (much as rock did), generating an enduring mystique for the alienated? Are we setting up a game of whack-a-mole, in which armed men in Viking horns spring up from the depths of forbidden discourse? Do these bizarros represent a subterranean culture that actually flourishes in a climate of repression? Is a consensus enforced by suppression ever effective in an open society? Is a truly open society even possible in such a censorious climate?

If I were faithful to my past, I would answer these questions with a ringing defense of free speech. My life as a radical journalist has depended on the distinction between offensive ideas and violent acts. But I’ve never run up against a violent movement with a set of beliefs so far from reality that it makes anarchism seem systematic. This capacity for sowing chaos is dire in a new, technologically enabled, way. But even the most extreme ideas are protected by the spirit and letter of the First Amendment. Violent acts, or the immanent intention to commit them, justify suppression. You don’t cancel people who invade the Capitol; you prosecute them. But this is a response to behavior, not beliefs.

So my final question is: What does it cost to repress dissent that skirts the edge of criminality. The answer demands that we look not just to the present, but to the unsavory history of punishing radical activism in America — to the Palmer Raids of the 1920s, in which thousands of leftists (including Emma Goldman) were deported; to that precursor of doxing, the blacklists of the 1950s, legal because they were created by pressure groups, not the government; to the seizing of gay writing by the postal service, reflecting a consensus so certain that homosexuality posed a danger to young people that listings with the word gay were banned from the Yellow Pages of the phone book. Those were the unintended consequences of suppressing freedom in the name of public safety as it was conceived of back in the day. Times have changed — or have they?

A version of this piece originally appeared in First of the Month: A Website of the Radical Imagination.

I am the former executive editor of The Village Voice, the author of six books, and a professor at New York University’s Tisch College of the Arts.