When Tom Perkins wrote his letter to the editor of the Wall Street Journal suggesting that very rich people are facing a "progressive Kristallnacht," the marketplace of ideas functioned as advertised. Tom Perkins said something very stupid, and was widely ridiculed as someone who had said something very stupid. He was the butt of many jokes and his former associates distanced themselves from him.
Perkins' comment was self-serious and inflammatory enough to be slightly novel. The reaction was mundane. So was the utterly predictable reaction to the reaction. This time, that sur-reaction is delivered by the Wall Street Journal, in an editorial helpfully titled "Perkinsnacht: Liberal Vituperation Makes Our Letter Writer's Point."
Maybe the critics are afraid that Mr. Perkins is onto something about the left's political method. Consider the recent record of liberals in power.
The Journal goes on to decry genuine abuses of power — like the IRS's despicable targeting of ideologically incorrect groups — and rhetorical douchebaggery from the likes of Andrew Cuomo and Bill DeBlasio. The Journal sullenly concludes:
The liberals aren't encouraging violence, but they are promoting personal vilification and the abuse of government power to punish political opponents.
But personal vilification isn't violence, and it is right and fit to call people out every time they say it is, and then call them out again when they double down.
Vigorous and hurtful and unpleasant speech is what we have instead of violence. Our ability to level such viscerally satisfying attacks on speech we don't like is a crucial part of what convinces us, as a nation, not to censor speech we don't like. In Europe, Tom Perkins might face official sanctions for saying the wrong thing about the Holocaust; here, he faces late-night jokes and insulting cartoons and the contempt of many. I like our way better.
It's common, now, to indulge in rhetoric that conflates criticism with violence or official oppression. People — mostly African-Americans — were actually lynched by mobs in this country less than a century ago. But now "lynch mob" is generally invoked when someone acts like an asshole and, in the judgment of their supporters, too many people are pointing it out at once. Real kids commit real suicide because of real bullying while advocates of the Right and the Left invoke "bullying" to describe having one's views criticized or questioned. In some countries people are still executed for witchcraft or condemned to jail or death by inquisitions; here when people say "witch hunt" or "inquisition" we generally mean we think public criticism of someone's obnoxious behavior is excessive. We're told that the "masculine and muscular" are at "risk" or "danger" because of feminized culture. As I understand it the particular risk is being made fun of on MSNBC, which muscular masculinity is apparently too timid to sustain.
All of this silly rhetoric is itself free speech, of course. But it's not harmless speech. It's pernicious. Conflating speech and violence encourages citizens to think that speech should be controlled like violence. That's not a abstract danger. It's real. States continue to pass idiotic "cyber-bulling" statutes, blundering around the legal landscape trying to determine which insults are hurtful enough to criminalize. American institutions continue to censor speech by willfully misconstruing protected rhetoric as unprotected threats. Police and prosecutors imprison kids for what are clearly jokes and investigate authors of critical reviews for "harassment." Left-leaning law professors argue that speech on the internet ought to be regulated to protect the civil rights of participants deterred from participation by harmful speech, using rhetoric that sounds suspiciously like what Right-leaning folks use when they complain that "political correctness" deters them from participating.
So: indulge yourself if you must. Call the people speaking ill of you a "lynch mob." Call that person criticizing your political screed a "cyber-bully." Cry "witch hunt" when someone doesn't like what you say. Cry "Holocaust" if you're rich and you don't like people pointing out that the system is rigged in favor of the rich.1 But just know that the price of your self-seriousness is the creeping notion that speech is just like action, and that therefore maybe we ought to regulate it a little more.
That's why I, as a defender of free speech, am going to keep calling out and ridiculing your Kristallnacht analogies, even if you think that's another Kristallnacht.
Last 5 posts by Ken White
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