What the Left gets wrong about free speech and Alex Jones
Leading lights and tastemakers on the Left (Glenn Greenwald, Caitlin Johnstone, and Jimmy Dore, among others) have jumped to defend Alex Jones ever since he was cut off from Facebook, YouTube, Spotify, and Apple iTunes on Aug 7, 2018 (and Twitter, albeit in a limited capacity, a week later). Their concerns about how this might affect indie media outlets and free-thinkers on the Left and Right are duly noted and important. But there are other issues at play that warrant deeper reflection, and I don’t think rigidly adhering to groupthink helps disentangle these subtleties.
Let me explain.
Jones himself was the first person to cry foul that his free speech rights were violated, and others quickly took up the same position, seemingly without much critical reflection. Unto itself, that alone is quite astonishing, especially in Johnstone’s and Dore’s case because they — and rightly, I should add — have been two of the loudest voices warning about the dangers of uncritically embracing official narratives a la Russiagate. (Greenwald, too, but like Jeremy Scahill and Amy Goodman, he leaves the door open on the possibility of Trump-Russia collusion so as not to risk alienateing the more ‘moderate’ members of his audience. Greenwald is in the publishing business after all. He co-founded The Intercept. Ditto Scahill and Goodman re: fear of alienating their audiences.) In the spirit of not swallowing narratives, I want to challenge the position that one should, or even can, defend a higher principle like freedom of speech without endorsing a person like Alex Jones’ ideas. That has been the cornerstone of Dore and Johnstone’s thinking, and I find this argument deeply disingenuous, if not dangerous.
First, Jones’s free speech was not infringed. He remains free to publish content through his own private website. Moreover, he is not in jail. He can stand on a street corner and shout into his megaphone. What’s the problem? Where’s the censorship? Answer: nowhere. So what really happened? Alex Jones lost his courtesy access to social media, nothing more. There are no laws stipulating company X must do business with client Y. Facebook, YouTube, Apple, Spotify, Twitter, or any other private company can decide if they don’t want to host Jones (or anyone else) for whatever reason and whenever they wish, and they are well within their rights, as private firms, to do so. It may be helpful to remember that Jones, in essence, works for the companies who dropped him. He’s an adjunct ‘partner-employee’ who crossposts his self-generated content on their web services for his (and their) profit. For all I know, those companies terminated their relationship with Jones because he was a douche bag one too many times, maybe at a party where they all hang out and enjoy the fruits of their labor. And that’s OK, because he, like them, is free to do so.
Whatever the case, Jones, like the rest of us, consented to their Terms of Service when he, or someone for his organization, clicked ‘agree’ to open those accounts. The issue, here, is the conflation of “rights” (1st amendment protections) with “privileges” (free social media access), and Greenwald, Johnstone, and Dore do a great disservice not only to their viewership but to the fine art of critical thinking by missing this key crucial fact. Jones, like the rest of us, had to consent to use those platforms. Where and when did you or I (or Jones, for that matter) consent to the Constitution? If you answered “Nowhere” and “Never,” you are correct. That is the difference between rights and privileges, and that is all Jones lost here: social media privileges. If we are honest with ourselves, losing privilege is about the worst thing that can happen to a (white) man — or anyone, in fact. (Think here, for instance, the right to live without fear of reprisal for one’s political views, or having your right to vote taken away because you’re a felon.) However, Jones can still produce and distribute content through his website. Thus, his 1st amendment rights have not been infringed. If and when the government shuts InfoWars down and/or puts him in jail, then I will gladly rally behind him because that would constitute actual government infringement on free speech. But until that happens, I will not defend Alex Jones. As my homies Sole & DJ Pain 1 put it: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zsi6J0SD3QI.
Second, and much more importantly, Dore cited Noam Chomsky’s defense of French Holocaust denier Robert Faurisson to legitimize the clarion call to stand for Jones’ rights, and Greenwald has also stated that Holocaust deniers deserve protection if we are to preserve the rights of all. This is where we wade into the painful groupthink of the Left. Like Chomsky before him, Dore argues that one not only can, but should (and, indeed, must) defend a person’s right to free speech, even repugnant Holocaust deniers. (Insert famous Voltaire quote about fighting to the death to preserve someone’s right to their views.) Dore, Johnstone, and Greewald claim, much like Chomsky did, that doing so does not axiomatically lead to an endorsement of that person’s ideas. However, if you watch the film version of Manufacturing Consent where Chomsky addresses this actual case, he also says that there may in fact be times when it is necessary and even justifiable to revoke someone’s right to free speech. But somehow Greenwald, Johnstone, Dore, and everyone else overlooks this fine point. It is deeply disengenuous, and I think it is dangerous.
Why would Chomsky backtrack and say that there are times when free speech can, and should be, revoked? Could he have had Karl Popper’s thinking in mind about the limits of tolerating intolerance? That’s important because Hitler and his henchmen (which Popper did have in mind) spoke and wrote freely and their speech and actions beguiled an entire nation to allow, and even engage in, war and genocide. Is Jones in a similar position of power? No, not by a long shot. However, I can think of no good reason to defend a person who issues threats and intimidations on the grounds of free speech. Not doing so does not constitute an abandonment of the principles of free speech. It’s actually the opposite: it is a requirement if we are to have free speech. (More on this below.) This has profound ramifications, and not just for the so-called indie media so many are concerned about, but our ability as a society to contest warmongers and prevent war. (I’ll take up that issue up separately near my conclusions.)
Back to Alex Jones. For many years now, Jones has used his privileged social media platforms to threaten and intimidate leaders, his (perceived) political opponents, but also, and this is particularly salient, to harass the families of the survivors of the Sandy Hook School shooting. Jones has gone so far as to deny that the massacre even took place. In fact, Jones has been a leader of the so-called Truther movement, which reared its ugly head in the wake of the Las Vegas and Parkland, Florida shootings. Members of the Truther movement are the same as Faurisson, the Holocaust denier Chomsky first defended but then backtracked on. There is no good reason to argue that such speech or behavior warrants 1st amendment protections. Indeed, Faurisson himself said that he had zero interest in free speech. (You can watch him do so in Manufacturing Consent.) That is quite telling. People who deny the actuality of verifiable past atrocities know they are being disingenuous, and they fully understand (even if they might deny it) that these sorts of denials are not a form of free speech. Indeed, it is disingenuous speech. Like the difference between rights and privileges, there is a difference between ‘free’ and ‘disengenuous.’ Don’t believe me? Look up the definitions of those words.
Greenwald, Johnstone, Dore et al. argue that we should be leery of giant, monopolisitc organizations like FB, YT, Twitter et cetera deciding what constitutes hate speech. They premise this argument on the assumption that powerful corporate plutocrats are not capable of determining what constitutes hate speech in a fair and even handed manner. (Implicit here is also the assumption that it is, nevertheless, possible.) However, that argument is as absurd as Greenwald’s assertion that if someone stands up for the rights of businesses to revoke Jones’ access to their services, then he or she axiomatically believes those companies will operate in a ‘benevolent’ manner when deciding what constitutes hate speech. (Greenwald tweeted this out shortly after the Jones affair broke.) He’s wrong on both accounts. In the actual world, individuals (or companies, as groups of individuals) decide what constitutes hate speech all the time. The crucially important point here is that we do so in an intersubjective manner — together, as a society. Otherwise, what good is democracy or democratic principles like freedom of speech?
Free speech has its limits, and hate speech — threats and intimidation, in particular (but especially to incite harassment, violence, or war) — is the limit. We do so when we declare that Statements X, Y, and Z consitute hateful, threatening, or intimidating speech — for example, when I decide to bring a libel or slander case against someone in a court of law, for example, for libeling me online to besmirch my character, say, in an attempt to ‘win’ a debate. My case might go to court, get settled out of court, or not even get out of my lawyer’s office, but all of those scenarios involve a very real level of intersubjective engagement by citizens, and that is crucial for free and fair societies. If Alex Jones sues the companies that deprivileged him, he will lose, but I hope he does because it will open a massively important debate we need to have.
There is a larger point here: to argue that companies or the leaders of companies should not be able to play a role in deciding what constitutes hate speech is not only wrong, it is an endorsement of tyranny. Although I am loathe to admit it, plutocrats (just like us) have every right to be a part of determining hate speech. Indeed, doing so is one of the fundamental responsibilities of free speech. To be sure, these plutocrats and companies are interested in protecting themselves and their companies from litigation, possibly with regard to how Jones used/abused the platforms they provide for free (while profiting handsomely) to threaten and intimidate. I don’t think they worry about being found complicit (like automakers and gun manufacturers aren’t), but more so that the government will step in and start regulating them. Yet like any business owner, the CEOs of Google, Apple, YouTube, etc are under no obligation to allow users to use their platforms to issue threats, intimidate, or knowingly disseminate misinformation mixed with disinformation. (Say, just what are we protecting here?) Suggesting otherwise is preposterous because doing so tacitly endorses taking away their free speech rights and actions. Why would the Left support this? Chomsky didn’t, and that is why he backtracked in the Faurisson incident. He was correct to do so: there are times when it is sensible to suppress free speech, and intervening to halt threats and intimidation (or the denial of historical atrocities) is one of those times. That Jones used his privileged access to free social media platforms to threat, intimidate, and deny atrocities is not conjecture. There is his well-known support of the truther movement, and Media Matters put together a compilation of his “greatest hits” where he can be heard issuing threats of violence. You can find the Media Matters compilation online or just watch Alex Jones’ past shows — because, again, his free speech has not been infringed. That content is available. Go to the InfoWars archive and check out his videos.
I urge Alex Jones, his followers, and his supporters to bring a MASSIVE lawsuit against the firms that dropped him on the grounds of free speech. I am almost certain he will lose, but this is a major opportunity to challenge corporate power, and it would be sad to see it go to waste on some masturbatory lari-fari debate on ‘free speech.’
Should we support the right of someone to threaten and intimidate under the guise of protecting speech while claiming we do not endorse that person’s ideas? I don’t think so, and here’s why: as POTUS, President Trump continually uses his Twitter handle to threaten nations, world leaders, and his perceived political opponents. Should Trump be allowed to threaten and intimidate under 1st amendment protections? No. This, to me, is the core of the issue. To defend Jones, Greenwald, Johnstone, Dore, and anyone else must also defend Trump’s right to rant belligerently on Twitter, and I am quite certain they would and do. In a video at The Intercept, Greenwald’s way out is to suggest that public figures should expect some level of hate and vitriol. But if we live in a democratic society where the rule of law applies to everyone (hint: we don’t), why should there be a separate standard for public and private figures? Greenwald is advocating for an absolutist position on free speech. That is ultra orthodox, dogmatic, and tyrannical. In Dore’s defense, he at least had the condor to admit on his show that he was concerned that he, like Jones, could be banned from YouTube. I applaud such candor, and I share Jimmy’s concern. However, I don’t think freedom of speech is the right way to protect yourself: it’s just the easy way. Instead, do what Jones did in 1993: launch your own independent media platform and beseech your audience to follow you there. That is your power, use it.
This is hardly an academic exercise (a favorite Chomsky quote of mine), and there is much more at stake than Caitlin’s or Jimmy’s media access. I’m talking about the power to make and wage war, especially when wars are sold through the press and media. In 2003, Colin Powell went before the United Nations and lied to the world to justify invading Iraq, which soon ballooned into the War of Terror. (Yes, the War of Terror, not the War ‘on’ Terror as we have been lied to again and again.) Along with Powell’s disingenuous speech, U.S. intel officals like George Tenet and Robert Mueller (among many others) lied before Congress. They threatened war, and they followed through with it. As a result, hundreds of thousands in Iraq (and between 5–7 million worldwide since 9/11) lay dead. Were Powell and the rest of Bush II’s henchmen within their rights to advocate for invading Iraq because of the 1st amendment? No, and I didn’t think so then, which is why I stood up and got involved in the antiwar movement. I don’t know about you but I do not want to live in a world where we defend someone’s right to lie and decieve. To do so under the auspices of some ‘higher principle’ is naive to the extreme. It also disrespects the lives lost. What good are higher principles when their misuse results in atrocities?
Just what are we protecting here?
The concern for the mass loss of life, human or otherwise, is one of Johnstone’s core concerns, i.e. that Russiagate could tip us into a nuclear war. I agree, Caitlin. But would you defend the right of anyone to speak or act in such a manner as to bring about the demise of the human race and ecosystem? I doubt it. In fact, she hasn’t. So much of Caitlin’s work has been devoted to preventing just that. It’s one of the many reasons I continue reading her. Like Abby Martin, Caitlin is one of the finest critics of this generation. With scathing critique and acerbic wit, Jimmy Dore and Lee Camp are the vanguard of commentary, satire, and comedy. Every content producer I’ve mentioned, including Greenwald, are leaps and bounds ahead of the milquetoasty corporate media. They’re some of the best we have, and I am glad we have them. But these people and their views are not unassailable. (Hint: resist celebrity worship.) They hide behind absolutist interpretations of the 1st amendment because it is easy. It’s the coward’s way. Don’t be soft in the head and don’t be a stubborn free speech absolutist. It’s dumb, and the courts have ruled on this. Don’t believe me? Try shouting fire in a crowded theater and see where you end up.
Many others have foolishly and uncritically jumped to Jones’ defense, and that is foolish for the reasons I outlined above. Like Jones (but more than Jones), Johnstone and Dore have made a pact with the devil. They have gotten into bed with private Internet firms to distribute their creative content, who could, for any reason (and without justification), simply drop them. Would that be an infringement on their free speech rights? Not that I can see. Again, those companies are under no obligation to service anyone. Is it corporate censorship? Possibly. Good luck proving that in court. Greenwald is protected because he is based at The Intercept, but in my view this is one reason to critique him and be suspicous of his ultra orthodox claims. He’s very much a player in the corporate media system. So are Johnstone and Dore. In fact, anyone who produces content and sells it on the Internet is. This is problematic because it opens one up for compromise. This is why our entire profit-driven system, media or otherwise, is fucked.
Here’s the deal. Social media is often characterized as the vanguard of democracy, the open public square of the 21st century where we are free to express ourselves as we wish. It’s true, but nothing could be further from the truth. Huh? Yes, that’s a contradiction, and it is an excellent indication that we are in a serious crisis. For starters, without a smartphone or a computer you can’t participate in online free speech. On the other hand, anyone can enter and engage an actual public square simply by being there and inhabiting it. This is why Occupy, for all its problems, was subversive. What does this tell us? It tells us that some very privileged people presume that everyone has the same privileges they do, but that’s simply not the case. To understand this, you have to reject groupthink. When people claim that an institution, organization, or company is democratic, we have a civic obligation to question such claims. The founding of the United States is perhaps the best example: the Constitution and the Bill of Rights are wrapped in platitudes of freedom and equality, yet people of color and women had limited, if not zero, rights. Jimmy Dore is fond of saying democracy is based on mistrust, not trust. He’s right. Mistrust now, mistrust often. I won’t be offended if you do, and if I am, who cares?
That said, I would like to state what for me is bleeding obvious: social media is a corporate-fascist panopticon. If it weren’t, we would have a hand in defining the terms and conditions under which we agree to participate: in defining the Terms of Service that justified revoking Alex Jones’ social media privileges. We do not. Worse still, we all agreed to the terms and conditions of this faux-democratic-cum-corporate-fascist space, and we are complicit in perpetuating it. How do we bring media companies (and ourselves) to heel so that they will serve us and not their own asse(t)s? To me, that is a much more important discussion than some argument about freedom of speech which essentially amounts to the self-serving tyranny of the Left. By all means, let’s have that discussion. Government-led monopoly breaking and public regulation of the Internet and all social media platforms? I’m on board. Let’s do it!! How do we do it? But if you support this, or similar, measures, then you support revoking the 1st amendment protections of businesses, CEOs, and plutocrats — especially if you think it is for the ‘greater good.’ So, do you? If you do, then you recognize the limits of free speech. You are not a free speech absolutist, and I agree: we should not be. It is counterproductive to the greater good, and that’s what Karl Popper and Noam Chomsky recognized, albeit in extreme circumstances.
We are in such circumstances right now.
In closing, I want to draw your attention to a very important but under-discussed aspect of Chomksy and Herman’s propaganda model. They point out that the corporate media system resorts to publishing platitudes about free speech to obscure the fact that the whole system is corrupt during times of crisis. Indeed, they maintain that this is one of the major ways ‘faith’ in our system is shored up. Need an example? Look at the 350 news outlets that jointly published op/eds denouncing Trump in Aug 2018 for the way he antogonizes the so-called free press. (Hint: it ain’t free: it’s corporate, profit-driven, and corrupt.) As I am sure Greenwald, Johnstone, Dore, and many others would agree, the U.S. corporate media system manufactures consent all the time: to ‘shore up’ support for illegal wars; to restore ‘faith’ in U.S. intell ‘services;’ to privilege the military industrial complex; to sell products and maintain support for ecocidal capitalistic corporate enterprise; and to sell us political leaders that lie us into war to kill and slaughter in our names for profit. Do Greenwald, Johnstone, Dore, and many others support their unfettered right to do so? If they do, then they are being hypocrites. If not, then they recognize the limits of free speech.
If you want to gloss over the threats Alex Jones issues to his alleged political opponents or ignore his harassment of Sandy Hook families, or if you want to defend President Trump’s use of Twitter (while ignoring Juliane Assange’s ongoing persecution for writing and publishing freely), let alone boil all of this down to some simplistic 1st amendment rights issue, by all means that is your right. But ask yourself who and what you are serving when you do. Your answer might surprise you.
*Shoutouts to Jill, Rob, John, Tom, Jesse, Robert, Tom, Sol, Florian, and Caitlin for engaging me on these issues.