Matt Taibbi and the Fight Over Free Speech on the Left

Part of the left might be “losing its mind,” but far from all

Matt Johnson
Jun 22, 2020 · 8 min read
Noam Chomsky in May 2014 (Uli Deck/picture alliance via Getty Images)

t feels liberating to say after years of tiptoeing around the fact,” Matt Taibbi recently wrote in a widely shared Substack post, “but the American left has lost its mind.” Taibbi’s post is largely about public defenestrations taking place at media organizations across the country, in which editors and writers have been mobbed and fired for publishing views that run counter to the dominant narratives on the left after the killing of George Floyd.

New York Times editorial editor James Bennet was pushed out for publishing an essay by Sen. Tom Cotton that called for the U.S. military to “disperse, detain and ultimately deter lawbreakers” who were rioting and looting on American streets. David Shor was fired from the data science firm Civis Analytics after tweeting a paper by political scientist Omar Wasow about the effectiveness of nonviolent protests versus riots (though it’s unclear exactly why Shor was removed from his position and he says a nondisclosure agreement prevents him from discussing the episode). Intercept reporter Lee Fang issued a public apology after tweeting an interview with a black protester named Max who thinks the protests should place greater emphasis on all forms of violence that affect black communities, not just police violence.

Taibbi was especially struck by the fact that Fang’s colleagues at The Intercept — particularly Akela Lacy, who described Fang’s decision to post the interview as a “racist” attempt to “push black on black crime narratives” — either accused him of racism outright or refused to publicly defend him against such an “extreme and villainous” charge. (Intercept co-founder Glenn Greenwald was one of the few who publicly defended Fang.)

There are many other examples, which leads Taibbi to conclude that “press activism is limited to denouncing and shaming colleagues for insufficient fealty to the cheap knockoff of bullying campus Marxism that passes for leftist thought these days.” Taibbi’s post was well-received among several prominent voices on the left, such as Greenwald and Noam Chomsky. Others have taken the opposite view, such as Current Affairs editor Nathan J. Robinson, who says he has “read more persuasive screeds about Leftist Social Justice Warriors in the books of Heather Mac Donald and Ben Shapiro.”

Taibbi’s post is controversial on the left because it exposes the tension between liberal values like free speech and the increasing willingness, particularly within media organizations, to censor views that allegedly put marginalized groups at risk. The problem, which Taibbi correctly identifies, is the elastic definition of the word “risk.” For example, one of the most common complaints from New York Times staffers after the publication of Cotton’s op-ed was the assertion that it “puts black @nytimes staffers in danger.” Robinson was more specific: “A right-wing senator calling for the use of military force against domestic dissidents is not something a principled op-ed editor should publish.”

But as Taibbi points out in his post, Cotton wasn’t “calling for the use of military force against domestic dissidents.” It’s true that Cotton previously posted a tweet in which he demanded “whatever it takes to restore order” and “no quarter for insurrectionists, anarchists, rioters, and looters.” There was also plenty of sloppy language floating around at the time, which conflated protesters with rioters, looters, and “insurrectionists,” so it’s understandable that many critics and New York Times staffers detected a menacing undertone to Cotton’s op-ed.

However, in the piece itself, which Robinson says he read “multiple times,” Cotton repeatedly distinguished between protesters and rioters, condemning what he described as the “revolting moral equivalence of rioters and looters to peaceful, law-abiding protesters,” arguing that the “majority who seek to protest peacefully shouldn’t be confused with bands of miscreants,” and calling for the military to intervene against “lawbreakers.” If New York Times staffers believe this response to the rioting and looting would invariably put their black colleagues at risk, it’s difficult to understand why their criticism wouldn’t apply to the deployment of regular police or National Guard forces as well. Cotton would no doubt argue that deploying the military would put peaceful protesters and journalists at less risk — an empirical question that should be open to debate, even if you think it’s absurd.

After The New York Times published Cotton’s piece, Robinson says, “I wrote that the op-ed editor should be fired, and when he was, I was pleased.” Taibbi is less certain that firing an editor for running a controversial piece is a good thing. Or the fact that, as he put it, “reporters were seeking to pre-empt a debate rather than have one at all.” Or the fact that New York Times editors feel the need to “shield readers from knowledge of what a major segment of American society is thinking.” Regarding the decision to fire Bennet, Robinson says “I thought that matter was open-and-shut.” But it’s the conviction that we should shut down open dialogue in the name of some ill-defined greater good that Taibbi is criticizing in the first place.

Robinson takes issue with generalizations about “the left,” and he has a point. There’s a tendency to declare that the left is opposed to free speech or the left is obsessed with identity (listen to Dave Rubin talk for more than five minutes and you’ll see what I mean). Taibbi slips into this habit when he says the “American left has lost its mind.” The varied reactions to Taibbi’s post among people who could, by any reasonable definition, be described as left-wing highlight the error in treating the left as a monolith.

For example, Zaid Jilani posted a series of tweets sympathetic to Taibbi’s post, one of which included a screenshot of an email exchange with Chomsky. In response to Jilani’s question about whether there’s a “general censorship trend on the left,” Chomsky answered: “You’re quite right. I’ve experienced it often.” When Jilani asked about Taibbi’s post specifically, Chomsky replied: “Saw it. He’s very sharp.” While many observers were surprised Chomsky wouldn’t be more critical of a piece that attacks the left so ferociously, he expresses his concern about emerging threats to free speech often. And the email he sent Jilani isn’t the first time he mentioned that some of these threats are coming from the left.

In an interview last year, Lawrence Krauss asked Chomsky about “this notion that the left in some ways is now being seen as not promoting free speech.” Although Chomsky began by saying “I question the notion of ‘the left,’” he went on to acknowledge that the suppression of speech is “certainly happening” and explained that it’s “wrong in principle,” “tactically insane,” and “the best gift that you can give to the right.” He continued:

“If some right-wing speaker tries to go to a campus and is blocked — it’s a gift. They love it. And you can see the way they’re using it. They say, ‘Oh, okay. We’re the good guys. We’re defending freedom of speech. You guys are Nazis.’ So if you want to give enormous gifts to the right wing … that’s the way to do it.”

Statements about giving “enormous gifts to the right wing” imply that Chomsky is speaking directly to the left. When Krauss brought up safe spaces, Chomsky attacked the idea that “you have to have special places where students won’t hear things. This is totally crazy.” He called for controversial speakers to be challenged in an organized way instead of shouted down by protesters who say “we’re so scared of them we can’t even hear them.” While it’s clear that Chomsky doesn’t think the problem of censorship is confined to the left — he would almost certainly argue that forms of right-wing censorship are more powerful and pernicious, especially now — this is beside the point. What matters is there’s a strain of thought on the left that’s opposed to exactly the sort of censorship Taibbi discussed in his post (and Taibbi’s post itself also demonstrates the point).

Much of the left-wing criticism of Taibbi has taken issue with his argument that the left, as a single amorphous entity, is losing its mind. This has led to responses like a recent video, in which Ben Burgis observes that “historically, the left has cared a great deal about free speech” and points to Norman Thomas, the Berkeley Free Speech Movement, etc. He could have added Eugene V. Debs, Bayard Rustin, or other 20th century left-wing champions of free speech. However, Burgis added, “some of these controversies might reasonably make some folks think that much of the left doesn’t currently place the kind of value on free speech that historically leftists had — and that leftists should.”

This is the fundamental point, as it’s clear that prominent factions on the left engage in the sort of behavior Taibbi criticizes. Robinson claims that “much of the left does not do any of this” — meaning squelch speech, attempt to get people deplatformed or fired, etc. — but when he gets into the details of each case Taibbi mentioned, Robinson demonstrates the habits of thought that lead to censorship, calls for people to lose their jobs, and other elements that feed this new atmosphere of orthodoxy and suppression.

Even when Robinson agrees someone shouldn’t be fired for airing their views, he’s full of rationalizations and caveats. For example, Robinson asserts that Shor sent out a “bad tweet” that cited “bad research,” before admitting that Wasow’s paper (the one Shor tweeted) “might be true empirically.”

The problem, according to Robinson, is that Wasow studied the wrong thing — he studied the political impact of rioting when he should’ve studied racist policies, the racist media, etc.: “It’s grotesquely immoral to make the conversation about rioters rather than looking at what causes rioters to do what they do.” Consider what Robinson is saying here: it’s grotesquely immoral to gather, analyze, or discuss the data in Wasow’s paper — even if, as Robinson openly admits, it’s grounded in empirical reality.

This isn’t an attitude conducive to open inquiry and debate — it’s an attitude that labels some views good and open for discussion and others bad and beneath discussion. So it’s no surprise that, when faced with a genuinely controversial argument in Cotton’s New York Times op-ed, Robinson moved from “grotesquely immoral” to “the people responsible for publishing this should be fired.” After all, who wants to employ someone whose actions at work are grotesquely immoral?

It’s suggestive that Robinson doesn’t even notice how illiberal this attitude is. As per his comments about now-former New York Times editor James Bennet, Robinson thinks the case for firing people he doesn’t agree with is “open-and-shut.”

Robinson’s view has become more common on the left, but there’s also significant pushback against it within the left. After Shor lost his job at Civis Analytics, Matthew Yglesias observed that his situation “highlights a really big problem.” Many others on the left, such as Jilani, Greenwald, and Taibbi, have been making similar points about censorship, demands to fire people for their views, and so on. This is why, just as we shouldn’t ignore or attempt to explain away the clear trend toward the suppression of speech on the left, we shouldn’t claim that the left as a whole is hostile to free speech either.

Part of the left may be losing its mind, but the part to which Taibbi belongs appears to have its cognitive faculties intact.

Arc Digital

The internet’s best opinion page

Matt Johnson

Written by

Writer and editor in Kansas City. Bylines: Quillette, Stanford Social Innovation Review, The Bulwark, Areo Magazine, Editor & Publisher, Arc Digital, etc.

Arc Digital

The internet’s best opinion page

Matt Johnson

Written by

Writer and editor in Kansas City. Bylines: Quillette, Stanford Social Innovation Review, The Bulwark, Areo Magazine, Editor & Publisher, Arc Digital, etc.

Arc Digital

The internet’s best opinion page

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