Orwell hadn’t even heard of Facebook

This week Donald Trump tweeted that his administration was “looking into” the “banning” of conservatives on “liberal” social media. With a conservative stranglehold on talk radio and powerful news outlets like FOX and Sinclair effectively functioning as mouthpieces for Trump’s policies, on the face of it Trump’s charges seem ridiculous. But Trump’s criticism hit an unexpected nerve with friends of free speech. Censorship in social media may not exclusively target conservatives, but it’s a very real thing.

A while ago I taught a citizenship class. If you read though the one hundred official U.S. citizenship questions, only one amendment — the First — gets any love. Not one question mentions any of the other amendments to the Constitution — and for good reason. It would be tough to explain school prayer, bowing to Evangelicals on abortion and adoption, stop and frisk, illegal wiretapping, blanket surveillance, cruel prison punishments including death by mystery cocktail, violations of habeus corpus, excessive bail, the lack of speedy trials, voter suppression, systemic racism, Constitution-free borders, limited “free speech zones,” and prosecutorial practices that effectively deny an accused person the right to a jury trial.

And what would be the point? Many of my students came from places where American “democracy” has propped up dictators and taught genocide and torture to their militaries. Or maybe these prospective Americans just looked around and noticed that, around here, civil liberties don’t really apply to immigrants or people of color.

Nevertheless, the citizenship questions give star billing to the First Amendment, which “guarantees” freedoms of speech, religion, assembly, and the right to petition the government. The First Amendment is clearly the beating heart of American democracy — for the writers of the citizenship test — and it’s almost an article of their faith that it grants us rights found nowhere else on earth.

But in truth the First Amendment is a completely toothless piece of text that does little to stop abuses arising from telling people what you think.

Read the fine print. The Constitution promises that the government won’t go after you for your views or interests — although it certainly has and does. Donald Trump, for example, tried to go after 1.3 million people who may have clicked on a website dedicated to disrupting his low-attendance inauguration. But besides attacking the First Amendment, the president’s sweeping demand for ISP data was also a violation of the Fourth Amendment. Reporters sans Frontieres ranks the United States 43rd in press freedom, a sign it’s pretty much on life support. And when Trump began targeting the Black Lives Matter movement, it was only the most recent example of a government that has always done expressly what the First Amendment forbids.

Now while the First Amendment theoretically keeps the government from silencing you, there’s absolutely nothing to stop an employer, a social or political organization, a business, or a school from censoring, expelling or punishing you. Adjunct professor Lisa Durden found this out when she was fired for defending Black Lives Matter on FOX News — not because the popular teacher had done anything wrong at her community college. White supremacist Richard Spencer lost his gym membership because of his views — not because of any specific behavior at the gym. Juli Briskman was canned by her employer for a third party photo showing her giving Donald Trump the middle finger as his motorcade sped past her while she was bicycling. The excuse given by Akima, a federal contractor — Briskman “violated” the company’s social media policy.

Americans regard China’s Great Firewall — which censors what Chinese citizens can view online — as a significant feature of authoritarian rule in that country. Yet the only difference between Chinese and American censorship is that here in the United States it’s been outsourced to corporations and employers — and, increasingly, internet service companies.

Twitter censored Politwoops, a group exposing backtracking and lying by politicians who delete or alter their ill-considered Twitter posts. Facebook censors content for both China and for the United States. When activist Mary Canty Merrill penned an open letter, “Dear White People,” she was censored by Facebook. Conservative Google employee James Damore wrote an internal memo criticizing his company’s diversity programs and was immediately terminated.

Some think the Internet is open and free. But remember — the Internet began its life as a defense industry (DARPA) project, and U.S., European, Chinese, Saudi, and other laws actually compel service providers to monitor and censor content while also delivering personal data (either lawfully or under secret programs like PRISM) to spy agencies. The U.S. government even forces ISPs to lie about it after the fact.

The internet, also as a consequence of the many lunatics who post on it, has become a gratuitously censored place. Social networks go out of their way to sanitize “offensive” or “upsetting” content. Google, Facebook, and Twitter — for all the hate speech they manage to monetize — feel obliged to protect us from beheadings, nursing mothers, the aftermath of terror attacks, radical manifestos, and “harmful” or “dangerous” hyperbole from both right and left. Julian Assange and Chelsea Manning are both sitting in jail now because they posted proof of U.S. war crimes, including a video of the 2007 murder of two Reuters reporters by the U.S. military.

A dangerous consequence of overt censorship is self-censorship. With enough positive or negative reinforcement people simply stop telling you what they really think. Or, if they persist, someone will censor them for simple lack of “civility.” In the aftermath of the 2016 election I observed this phenomenon as Bernie and Hillary people duked it out. One moderator of an Indivisible group decided to shut down debate by insisting on acceptable views, acceptable discussion, acceptable tone, and acceptable news sources.

In the preface to one edition of Animal Farm, George Orwell noted that popular opinion is often a greater threat to freedom of thought and expression than authoritarian government, and that anyone who chafes against prevailing orthodoxy often “finds himself silenced with surprising effectiveness” by his own friends.

… the chief danger to freedom of thought and speech at this moment is not the direct interference of the [Ministry of Information] or any official body. If publishers and editors exert themselves to keep certain topics out of print, it is not because they are frightened of prosecution but because they are frightened of public opinion. In this country intellectual cowardice is the worst enemy a writer or journalist has to face, and that fact does not seem to me to have had the discussion it deserves

Any fairminded person with journalistic experience will admit that during this war official censorship has not been particularly irksome. We have not been subjected to the kind of totalitarian ‘co-ordination’ that it might have been reasonable to expect. The press has some justified grievances, but on the whole the Government has behaved well and has been surprisingly tolerant of minority opinions. The sinister fact about literary censorship in England is that it is largely voluntary.

Unpopular ideas can be silenced, and inconvenient facts kept dark, without the need for any official ban. Anyone who has lived long in a foreign country will know of instances of sensational items of news — things which on their own merits would get the big headlines – being kept right out of the British press, not because the Government intervened but because of a general tacit agreement that ‘it wouldn’t do’ to mention that particular fact. So far as the daily newspapers go, this is easy to understand. The British press is extremely centralised, and most of it is owned by wealthy men who have every motive to be dishonest on certain important topics. But the same kind of veiled censorship also operates in books and periodicals, as well as in plays, films and radio. At any given moment there is an orthodoxy, a body of ideas which it is assumed that all right-thinking people will accept without question. It is not exactly forbidden to say this, that or the other, but it is ‘not done’ to say it, just as in mid-Victorian times it was ‘not done’ to mention trousers in the presence of a lady. Anyone who challenges the prevailing orthodoxy finds himself silenced with surprising effectiveness. A genuinely unfashionable opinion is almost never given a fair hearing, either in the popular press or in the highbrow periodicals.

And Orwell hadn’t even heard of Facebook.

Better Angels

The other day I noticed that the liberal-ish press had suddenly become obsessed with civility and had begun hectoring us to listen to our better angels — to “play nice” with the Deplorables. Someone denied a cheeseburger to a White House spokeswoman who lies for a living, defending the cruelest of policies. And you’d have thought the end of civilization was near.

On the importance of maintaining “good form” both CNN and FOX News were in total agreement: “Fox Business host Trish Regan defended CNN’s Jim Acosta on Tuesday, calling verbal attacks on the reporter at a Trump rally are ‘not only bad manners, it’s bad form,’ while calling out both sides for a total lack of civility.”

Lots of people noticed the break from reality and bizarre lack of perspective. Philosopher Robert Paul Wolff (author of “The Poverty of Liberalism”) wrote, “The norms of public political discourse vary considerably from country to country, and even from neighborhood to neighborhood within a country. The British Parliament is much more raucous than the American Congress, and I will not even talk about the Israeli Knesset. Only in the world of the Washington elite does being denied service at a restaurant appear to be a violation of sacred norms calling for serious discussion of the foundations of democratic society. […] But whatever the local norms of civility may be, it can always be asked under what conditions it is right, even required, to violate them as part of a political protest.”

On December 12th, 1964 Malcom X spoke at the Oxford Union Club in England and, with a sly wink to Barry Goldwater, talked about “the necessity, sometimes, of extremism, in defense of liberty, why it is no vice, and why moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue. […] I doubt that anyone will deny that extremism, in defense of liberty, the liberty of any human being, is a value. Anytime anyone is enslaved, or in any way deprived of his liberty, if that person is a human being, as far as I am concerned he is justified to resort to whatever methods necessary to bring about his liberty again.” Earlier that year Malcom X gave his Ballot or the Bullet speech at King Solomon Baptist Church in Detroit, reminding listeners of the incivility and extremism of the American Revolution. Turns out, for much of American history dissent usually trumps decorum.

Media Matters observed that the “right-wing media are criticizing Rep. Maxine Waters (D-CA) after she encouraged people to publicly protest Trump administration officials who are complicit in the atrocious family separation policy at the U.S border. But the ‘civility’ these outlets are touting has been absent in their many vicious past attacks on Waters.”

Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting took the liberal-ish press to task for its preoccupation with manners and distaste for speaking truth to power. FAIR pointed out that the Washington Post had run “three articles between Sunday, June 24, and Monday, June 25, calling for ‘civility’ and criticizing those who interfered with the dining experiences of Trump administration officials.”

In a Bloomberg News editorial, Jonathan Bernstein wrote, “Civility Is Important in a Democracy. So Is Dissent.” Bernstein observed: “In these times, however, it’s a joke to focus on incivility by Democrats even as the Republican president routinely says things that are as bad as or worse than the attacks of the most irresponsible Democratic no-name precinct chair.” In an unusual footnote, Bernstein reminded readers that when it comes to civility in a democracy, “of course incivility wasn’t the most important problem with U.S. democracy; indeed, restrictions on the franchise and full citizenship were so severe that there’s a good case to be made that it wasn’t a real democracy until at least 1965.” Whatever temporary gains we’ve made were made in the street.

Finally, Nation writer Sarah Leonard spoke my mind with her article, “Against Civility: You can’t fight injustice with decorum.” Among Leonard’s excellent points: “Throughout history, activists have seldom won battles against injustice by asking politely. […] The people being targeted [for protest] are adults living and working in a democratic society; facing consequences for their actions, as conservatives would agree, is what grown-ups should all do. […] To cling to civility is to allow the powerful to commit crimes, as long as they do so with a smile and a handshake.”

If we are truly listening to our better angels, they’ve been whispering — “#resist.”

Civility

As we rapidly slide into authoritarianism led by a racist vulgarian, the press has oddly become fixated on not the danger to our democracy but on civility and balance. To hear some tell it, we have too much democracy. No, we hear a lot lately, the threat to America is bad manners.

The mainstream media considers it “uncivil” to lob hardballs at a politician or shout “non-responsive!” at his evasive answers. Instead, it steers a safe, middle course, avoiding “controversial” phrases and judgments. The “split-screen” showing both sides of an issue is a fixture of the media, whether in the Op-Ed section of a newspaper or on your favorite cable news show.

Civility is why “nationalist” is the style guide’s choice for Richard Spencer — instead of the more accurate “white supremacist” or “neo-Nazi.” If a Congressman uses the N-word it will be reported as a “racially-charged remark” and not as a “racist” epithet. When reporting climate change there must be “balance” to the 99% of scientists who regard it as fact. Civility means fairness and fairness requires false balance. So readers are obliged to hear from petrochemical lobbyists to provide indispensable new insights into a nonexistent “debate.”

Recently the press began worrying that Sarah Huckabee Sanders was denied a cheeseburger at a Virginia restaurant. The liberal press fretted — is this the end of civility? The Washington Post warned in its best Mom voice, “Let the Trump team eat in peace.” Al Jazeera worried that liberal vexation at a mendacious fundamentalist White House spokeswoman reflected “growing concern about political tribalism” in the United States.

When U.S. Representative Maxine Waters suggested challenging Trump administration figures in public, Politico headed for the bomb shelter: “Waters scares Democrats with call for all-out war on Trump.” House minority leader Nancy Pelosi rebuked Waters, calling for “unity” — even though a recent CNN poll showed that 42 percent of Americans want Trump to be impeached — including a very unified 77 percent of Democrats.

The liberal reticence to vigorously challenge Trump seems based on fears of ridiculous things Trumpistas might say. In a piece entitled “The Left Loses its Cool,” Politico quoted Florida’s GOP Attorney General Pam Bondi: “When you’re violent and cursing and screaming and blocking me from walking into a movie, there’s something wrong,” she said. “The next people are going to come with guns. That’s what’s going to happen.” For Trump supporters having an unpleasant lunch is worse than ICE throwing children into cages or dying because somebody took your healthcare away. Nonsense like this often goes unchallenged.

While the president was busy signing, un-signing, and re-signing executive orders on family separations, the press seemed far less intererested in discovering why sitting U.S. Senators were denied entry to DHS detention facilities. When immigration attorney David Leopold appeared on CNN and pointed the finger for the White House’s inhuman family separation policies at “white nationalist, Stephen Miller,” host Kate Bolduan cut him off: “I don’t know if you want to go as far as to — I mean, let’s not — I just did an entire segment about civility here. I don’t know if you want to call Stephen Miller a white nationalist.”

Thus “civility” ended what could have shed some light on the issue of family separations. Leopold was on the right track: to really understand White House immigration policies you first have to understand its White Supremacists. Yet while the mainstream media pulls its punches, censors guests, and cuts off lines of inquiry, FOX and Sinclair, right-wing radio and conservative papers throughout the country dispense with such niceties and play hardball.

“When they go low, we go high,” Michelle Obama told Democrats shortly before the 2016 election. This was a sweet sentiment. But during that same campaign Donald Trump mocked a disabled journalist and called Mexicans rapists and criminals. This became the new standard of civility. Last March Trump tweeted that Maxine Waters was a “very low IQ individual.” The Tweet was reported but Waters largely had to defend herself in the press.

The stakes have never been higher. We ought to worry less about civility and more about democracy. If we really want to salvage what’s left of it we need to take the gloves off and aggressively confront injustice and untruth.

That goes for both liberals and for a very timid and diminished Fourth Estate.