- The Popehat Report
- In Which I Repent On Free Speech Culture
In Which I Repent On Free Speech Culture
I Apologize To Elon Musk For Infringing On His Speech
I confess! I have been wrong, and have wronged many. I have called false things true and have slandered the upstanding as evil. I have expressed prideful, stubborn resistance to the concept of free speech culture, and been an apologist for the rankest cancellation. I have indulged in snobbish skepticism of the comparative risks that sophomore comp lit majors pose to the very freedoms that better men than I have fought and died to protect.
No more. Now I see the light. How could I not? Great beams of it have shone upon my eyes, cast by the best thinkers of our society. My inflexible dogmatism is no match for them. The insubstantial line I imagined between government force and private criticism has vanished like a mist. Now I see. Criticism is censorship. Is not all censorship speech? “You’re under arrest” is speech. “We the jury find the defendant guilty” is speech. “You’ve been found liable for defamation” is speech. We all agree those things are censorship. So how can brutal speech like “racist” and “antisemite” and “lunatic” and “disconcertingly puffy serial divorcee” and “I think I will chose to advertise elsewhere” not be censorship?
It took better men — titans of America, really — to show me. Elon Musk, billionaire scientific genius and social philosopher and equestrian innovator has explained it. As it was necessary to destroy Bến Tre to save it, it’s necessary to sue journalists for criticizing the way you exercise freedom of speech, to protect your right to utter that speech without anyone reacting negatively. It’s simple, and pure, like a koan. I am indebted, too, to Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton — the stalwart of the speech-defending Federalist Society — who showed me that it’s necessary to use the apparatus of government to protect free speech by criminally investigating people who oppose and suppress free speech by criticizing how someone else uses it.
Musk and Paxton have converted me; they have immersed me in the baptismal font of free speech culture. I see that my focus has been wrong. I have been preoccupied with petty concerns — is this speech protected by the First Amendment? — and not with the more fundamental and important question: “does this speech make someone else feel uncomfortable about what they just said?”
I see now I was wrong, badly wrong, shamefully wrong, about recent events on Elon Musk’s platform X. I reacted with scorn and contempt and abuse when Elon Musk endorsed the notorious anti-Semitic theory that Jews are importing foreign minorities to undermine the West. I engaged in abuse, not debate. But in a civilized society, that’s not how we proceed. We debate. Until we know all of the facts, how do we know whether or not Jews are pushing hatred of white people and importing hordes of minorities to undermine Western countries? Did these critics, these journalists, these bloggers, these advertisers, show that they cared about truth by saying “interesting point, Elon — which Jews are doing that, and how are they doing it, and are some of the minority hordes worse than others?” The debate would be enriched by the many thoughtful participants in the marketplace of ideas who have signified their eagerness for dialogue by paying $8 per month for a blue check. Instead, the scorn and abuse heaped on Elon Musk threatens to lead to less speech — to fewer people talking about how Jews are ruining America.
Trying to shun or shame Elon Musk for his speech is arrogant. It supposes you know everything and can’t be wrong. You believe that there is a not a cabal of Jews seeking to overthrow the Christian West by importing foreigners with different values. Are you infallible? Are you God? No. You’re capable of being wrong. You don’t know for sure what happens after we die. You don’t know whether string theory is right. You can’t be sure which tax policy will produce the best results. You don’t know if Judy Blume actually died trying to sneak a guy named Ahmed into your garage. So since you can be wrong — since you’ve been wrong before — where do you get off criticizing Elon Musk? Where do you get off, Apple, pulling your advertising dollars, when the iTunes app has always sucked, showing your fallibility?
Does condemning Elon Musk for his speech demonstrate a willingness to live and let live, share our institutions with those who hold differing views, and refuse to let beliefs divide us? It does not. It shows the contrary. It shows an entitled, brutish intolerance, saying “this country isn’t big enough for you, who argue we are a historically evil pernicious force seeking to undermine America from within, and us, who argue we aren’t.” It seeks to shun.
But the core of free speech culture is that we must seek to persuade rather than to shun— to succeed in the marketplace of ideas, which is as efficient and reliable as the economic marketplace that empowered Elon Musk to pay $44 billion for Twitter. You may think that boycotts and other pressure on advertisers are “speech,” just because every court says so and because they’ve traditionally been used by civil rights activists and Gandhi and farm workers and labor unions and stuff. You’ve been deluded. They’re not. When the world’s richest man tells 160 million X followers that Jews are importing non-whites to undermine America, that’s speech; when you tell IBM to stop promoting that by advertisements, that’s coercion. It inevitably harms the marketplace by reducing the number of billionaires willing to enter the debate over the truth of Great Replacement Theory. It’s anti-speech, and what else is the law there for but to protect speech from anti-speech things?
It’s also deeply dangerous. It promotes covert evil. Free speech culture helps us know what ideas are out there, even the worst ones. If billionaires are shamed, shunned, or economically pressured when they articulate historic antisemitic tropes, how will we know which billionaires believe in antisemitic tropes? We can’t all just ask Clarence Thomas; that’s impractical.
Or take Pizzagate. Is it right, or just, that the media and the conformist masses should rebuke Elon Musk simply for expressing receptiveness to a theory that key Democrats are operating a pedophile ring out of the basement of a pizza restaurant? It is not. The way for a healthy society to address such a question is through searching and open debate: Elon Musk, Mike Cernovich, and 4chan user kill@llniqqrs on one side of the proposition and, other the other side, ready to provide convincing evidence to disprove the proposition, any detractors. We should not allow one side of the debate to rule certain topics “off limits” in the marketplace of ideas, whether by ad hominem attacks or by manipulative tactics like asserting that the pizza place does not technically, physically, have a basement.
I’ve travelled part of the way down this path before. I’ve noted that Americans — including college students — sometimes engage in fatuous and intolerant demands to use official power to silence dissent, and sometimes imagine that they have the right not just to criticize speech but to prevent it from happening. But I have evaluated risks wrong. I have struggled with the pedantic error of legalism — of thinking that it’s somehow worse for a billionaire to act in concert with an Attorney General to use civil and criminal force to punish journalists than it is to tolerate a culture where people can socially sanction a billionaire for saying Jews are using dark people to destroy America. I regret the error.
As I join the free speech warriors who have spoken out bravely against cancel culture — Elon Musk, Donald Trump, Ron DeSantis — I am reminded of the most fundamental precept of free speech culture: we must always presume that everyone is arguing in good faith, and that everyone wants a fair debate. We must treat each argument with seriousness and dignity, no matter who speaks it, or how. We cannot be confined by our prejudgments. As free speech advocate Kanye West put it, “How I’m antisemitic? I just fucked a Jewish bitch.” That is the only path to the society we deserve.
I was wrong. But it’s all right, everything is all right, my struggle is finished. I have won the victory over myself. I love free speech culture.