A little knowledge, per Alexander Pope’s Essay on Criticism, is a dangerous thing. In Antisocial: Online Extremists, Techno-Utopians, and the Hijacking of the American Conversation, New Yorker staffer Andrew Marantz demonstrates how a little principle can be an even more dangerous thing.
“Having spent the past few years embedding as a reporter with the trolls and bigots and propagandists who are experts at converting fanatical memes into national policy, I no longer have any doubt that the brutality that germinates on the internet can leap into the world of flesh and blood,” Marantz recently wrote in the New York Times. “The question is where this leaves us. Noxious speech is causing tangible harm. Yet this fact implies a question so uncomfortable that many of us go to great lengths to avoid asking it. Namely, what should we — the government, private companies, or individual citizens — be doing about it?” Answering “nothing” and continuing to be averse to censorship won’t do, Marantz spends his book implying.
Marantz presents a two-step argument. First, he demonstrates that there are sleazy, racist, opportunistic weirdos using the internet to gain influence in American life — influence that has swayed the way we talk and interact and even the way we voted in 2016 in unthinkable ways. Then, he insinuates that this renders holding fast to a belief in the principles of free speech naive. The idea, stipulated but never really backed up, is if social media created the conditions for Trump and for killings in Charlottesville and Christchurch and Pittsburgh, something needs to be radically reconsidered. This is a time we sometimes call the Trump Era and sometimes call the age of social media, and this confluence is no accident, Marantz urges. And so, a sophisticated person needs to update his thinking on questions of freedom of speech.
The idea of this book isn’t so much that the idea of free speech was always bad as that recent events have rendered it defunct. If the “gatekeepers” and “referees of the national discourse” (two terms he uses approvingly and wistfully) could not prevent the current national nightmare, something must be done. We need higher gates. Refs need to be able to call more fouls.
Marantz does some good reporting in Antisocial, though calling it “embedded” is a bit much. Going to the “Deploraball” with a bunch of internet pseudocelebrities who are ecstatic to get to claim to have “memed” the president into the White House is hardly war correspondence. Marantz gives a tedious fifth of the book over to recounting that night.
Following Marantz’s “hijacking” metaphor from the book’s subtitle, he spends a lot of time with the “online extremists” who in this metaphor are the hijackers. Those who spend too much time on Twitter will recognize the characters, so feel good if you don’t. There’s ‘roided up Mike Cernovich, spouting off. There’s Proud Boy Gavin McInnes, starting scuffles and talking himself up. There’s loony Laura Loomer, there’s a bevy of lesser Trumpy tweeters, and there are full-on Nazoids, such as Richard Spencer and Mike Enoch, and factious white supremacists debating just how explicit to be about their stance on the “JQ” (Jewish question). Marantz’s look at the psychodynamics of how Enoch became the husband and then ex-husband of a Jew while he rose to racist prominence as the host of the, um, edgily titled podcast The Daily Shoah is one of the less well-trod and most incisive episodes of the book.
Marantz sometimes exudes almost more contempt for the “techno-utopians” he covers than for the outright Jewhaters and Pinochet partisans. By “techno-utopian” he means the creators of online tools for viral social sharing and architects of social networking sites like Reddit. He characterizes them as uncritical, ideologically-committed adherents of an amoral, “content-neutral” philosophy of technology which allows them to profit from viral internet sharing without caring what the viral content is. (“Just the messenger” and all that.) In the hijacking metaphor, they’d be like the TSA agents who negligently let boxcutters through, shrugging that the blades didn’t set off the metal detectors.
One part of the oddly “Flight 93 Election”-esque metaphorical picture of a hijacking goes unaddressed: Who are the pilots of the national conversation, steering behind alarmingly unlocked cockpit doors? The answer, to Marantz, is too obvious to mention. Marantz is. The New Yorker is. The New York Times and other such high-information gatekeepers are.
No consideration is given to just why the old gate-kept setup was so primed for disruption. He tries several times and at length to be self-aware about perception of the New Yorker and of bookish, Hillary-voting, Jewish Brooklyn journalists (like me!). But he can’t help but smarmily compliment himself even when he tries to self-deprecate. That’s because he can’t seem to imagine that anyone really understands the issue and actually disagrees with him. “The only simplicity I trust is the simplicity on the far side of complexity,” Chesterton wrote. Well, Marantz assumes anyone attached to a simple principle must be unaware of complexity, not past it. So the resistance to limiting free speech in America is all attributed to individual powerful people’s fecklessness and greed at worst, and to ordinary people’s naivete at best.
Free Expression Is a Radicalism Worth Defending
Marantz, in his time with the radicalized, seems to have been radicalized against free speech by seeing so many unseemly people appeal to free speech. And he’s willing to say anything to drive a wedge between people and their attachment to it.
If Marantz’s argument is astonishingly uninterested in principles, that seems to be because Marantz does not recognize what sort of thing a principle even is. Marantz thinks of principles as just another preference. This mental mushiness leads him to some conclusions that don’t make good logistical sense. Writes Marantz, “If Congress wanted to get really ambitious, it could fund a rival to compete with Facebook or Google, the way the Postal Service competes with FedEx and U.P.S.” Who does Marantz think is in charge of the Senate right now? People he likes? Would McConnellBook be a positive addition to the American conversation? (And does he think the Postal Service works well?) What would the government Facebook contribute, except a boondoggle and a surveillance apparatus for the Trump administration to exploit?
Antisocial is shot through with this sort of shoddily thought out argument. There are some really big examples of this and a lot of small ones. A big one: Our era is probably the historical nadir of violence in America. We’re certainly at the 20-year low. If violence is the consideration, isn’t this evidence that sticking to our principles is working well, not reason to make dramatic changes in the organizing philosophy behind our civil society?
One small one in particular, an analogy between the effects of the internet and the printing press, stood out to me on grounds of sheer ignorance: “The printing press empowered such religious progressives as Erasmus and John Calvin; it also empowered hucksters, war profiteers, terrorists, and bigots.” [Emphasis mine.]
First, if you think that John Calvin was a religious “progressive,” I simply cannot help you. Does this make Servetus a religious center-left liberal? But maybe the deeper issue here is this: Does he think of the printing press as a technology society generally ought to regret? Sure, he points out that “the printing press played an indispensable role in disseminating Luther’s anti-Semitism.” But did it? I’m almost 100 percent sure that before the 16th century, European anti-Semitism was getting along just fine, actually, and could have dispensed with the printing press. The Enlightenment, on the other hand, probably could not have dispensed with it.
Marantz clearly reads broadly, but his book is just full of this kind of tendentious or absurd claim, and it makes the experience of reading it maddening.
But the very worst thing about Antisocial is its belief in magic words. “To change how we talk is to change who we are,” Marantz repeats, mantra-like, half a dozen times or more. This bespeaks his obsessions with policing language, which I wish I could call weird. But I can’t, since it is becoming ubiquitous on the left.
His hope is that “maybe one day Americans will find themselves speaking and acting in a way that takes real justice and solidarity for granted.” That’s right: takes it for granted. We should build justice into our assumptions, not consider what it is, argue for it, defend it, or do anything so autonomous as any kind of actual thinking. It needs to be an automatic process built into words, so those less capable and intellectually considerate than Marantz will merely absorb it from the ambient culture around us. Marantz says this explicitly and repeatedly — “our national vocabulary, and thus our national character…,” “…pointed the way toward a better moral vocabulary,” “the American popular vocabulary is in a period of deep dysfunction,” etc.
It doesn’t seem to have occurred to him that how we talk records and reflects who we are, rather than determines it. He does not consider that we do have exceptions to free speech protections, but that they are narrow and well-defined. Of course he also repeats the “fire in a crowded movie theater” line, which comes from one of the more sordid episodes in American jurisprudential history — the Supreme Court ruling that socialists couldn’t peacefully protest the American government for making war. I wonder if Marantz agrees with that. For its part, the Court has largely walked it back, anyway.
If It Ain’t Broke
In Antisocial, Marantz set out to report out the gory details of the lives of the very online, grossly Trumpy wingnuts who will make you cringe so hard you’ll recoil at your own values. If the culture and technologies of a society that values free speech allows these people to do their thing, maybe a society that values free speech needs to take a second look at itself. It’s a new era. Maybe free speech can’t coexist with the internet, at least not without some serious limitations.
One of the (mixed) metaphors Marantz uses repeatedly to push this is a party: “Let’s say you’re hosting a party in a warehouse. You can’t eradicate all pathogens from the air. You don’t know how many of your guests are sick, and you don’t want to stand outside the front door holding a thermometer and a stethoscope. The best you can do is plan for contingencies. You can ventilate the room, and put Purell on the tables, and install a carbon monoxide detector. If some idiot is going around sneezing in people’s faces, you can ask him to stop, or you can kick him out of the party. You won’t eradicate all disease, but you can keep it from reaching an epidemic threshold.”
Marantz uses this idea of needing some rules at a party several times throughout the book to insinuate that dispensing with free speech as a universal human value is just common sense. “After all that’s happened…,” he seems to be saying, using the deaths of Heather Heyer in Charlottesville and others to make what is ultimately a point about media criticism.
But is American society like a party? Does the metaphor hold? I think, in a profound way, it does not. The truly radical idea behind liberal self-government is that at this soiree, there is no host, just attendees. And that highlights how Antisocial is, in the end, a failure of imagination. A society that’s like a hosted party, with someone setting all the rules, determining who is invited and on what conditions and doling out the favors? That’s a monarchy, or a fascist dictatorship. It’s very telling that that’s how Marantz sees our society. It’s even more telling that he can only picture himself as the host.