Hayward: China’s Censorship Ideals Take Root on the American Left

Eric Schmidt Google (Peter Parks / AFP / Getty)
Peter Parks / AFP / Getty

What are you “independent” from, and how will you assert your independence? Free speech is under attack in America and all around the world.

It is not merely a matter of blatant authoritarian oppression and mob violence, but an insidious belief that free speech must be sacrificed in the name of social harmony. Now that the Internet has given everyone a megaphone, the people can no longer be trusted to express themselves without stern supervision.

The latest broadside against free speech was delivered in a June 30 New York Times article entitled “How Conservatives Weaponized the First Amendment.” The article explores how “liberals” fell out of love with the freedom of expression, driven in no small part by opportunistic revulsion for a string of big conservative speech victories.

Part of the article is devoted to setting up a flip-flop in which conservatives used to be against free speech while liberals were energetically in favor of it. The difference in attitudes then and now, alluded to by the Times piece but not explored in detail, is that conservatives like future Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork argued that political speech deserved the most robust protection under the First Amendment, even as they expressed reservations about pornography, advertising, and so forth.

Today’s left-wing speech restrictionists explicitly attack political speech and claim it can no longer be indulged because it interferes with the left’s policy and social objectives. Everyone needs to clam up because boisterous discourse threatens social harmony. Centuries of injustice can only be corrected by muzzling the privileged.

After dwelling for a bit on the irony of liberals turning against the pornography they once defended because it has become “an assault on women’s rights,” the Times article gets down to business and quotes left-wingers who think speech must be tightly rationed to achieve social justice:

Some liberals now say that free speech disproportionately protects the powerful and the status quo.

“When I was younger, I had more of the standard liberal view of civil liberties,” said Louis Michael Seidman, a law professor at Georgetown. “And I’ve gradually changed my mind about it. What I have come to see is that it’s a mistake to think of free speech as an effective means to accomplish a more just society.”

To the contrary, free speech reinforces and amplifies injustice, Catharine A. MacKinnon, a law professor at the University of Michigan, wrote in “The Free Speech Century,” a collection of essays to be published this year.

“Once a defense of the powerless, the First Amendment over the last hundred years has mainly become a weapon of the powerful,” she wrote. “Legally, what was, toward the beginning of the 20th century, a shield for radicals, artists and activists, socialists and pacifists, the excluded and the dispossessed, has become a sword for authoritarians, racists and misogynists, Nazis and Klansmen, pornographers and corporations buying elections.”

We now have the likes of Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan fulminating against conservatives “turning the First Amendment into a sword” and bizarrely arguing that true freedom requires putting the freedom of speech in a very tightly locked box. The left views liberty as a limited resource that should be redistributed by the government in a zero-sum game.

The hardest of the hardcore left-wing quotes in the Times article are from Seidman, who lays out a case against free speech that will sound disturbingly familiar to students of world events:

“With the receding of Warren court liberalism, free-speech law took a sharp right turn,” Professor Seidman wrote in a new article to be published in the Columbia Law Review. “Instead of providing a shield for the powerless, the First Amendment became a sword used by people at the apex of the American hierarchy of power. Among its victims: proponents of campaign finance reform, opponents of cigarette addiction, the L.B.G.T.Q. community, labor unions, animal rights advocates, environmentalists, targets of hate speech and abortion providers.”

The title of the article asked, “Can Free Speech Be Progressive?”

“The answer,” the article said, “is no.”

Where else can we find this dismal view of free speech as an instrument of disharmony and social injustice? Communist China. The left-wingers quoted by the New York Times are parroting exactly what China’s authoritarian rulers say about the need for stern censorship and tight Internet controls.

For example, in a 2010 paper defending Internet censorship, China’s rulers stressed the importance of blocking “information that contains content subverting state power, undermining national unity, or infringing upon national honor and interests.” The very same document claimed Chinese citizens nevertheless “fully enjoy freedom of speech on the Internet.”

China insists it has found the proper balance between “freedom and order” by restricting access to information that would spread disharmony and challenge the government, which is the guarantor of social justice and security for the people. Chinese speech police view themselves as loving but stern fathers controlling which ideas are allowed into their “house.” They defend censorship as a shield against “fake news,” much as America’s aspiring speech police do.

China wants the rest of the world to accept its notion of “Internet sovereignty” as a model to follow. “Reining in social media appears to be the trend of governments,” the state-run Global Times happily declared in April.

Chinese propagandists carefully study Western media and know how to speak the language of the Western left. Expect them to fully exploit a moment when leftist thought leaders have turned bitterly against free speech because they’re losing all the political arguments and seethe with anger at the American voters who have abandoned them.

You might ask why China is so eager to export its censorship ideals to its global adversaries if it truly believes speech controls give it a competitive advantage over unruly, chaotic, fractious classical liberalism. In part, it is because China believes it can exert more influence over American leaders if it can bring a significant share of the American public into ideological alignment with authoritarian communism.

Also, Chinese strategists know the American elite will never tolerate the level of nationalism that unifies Chinese citizens. China is ethnically homogenous and flooded with patriotic propaganda, while American papers like the New York Times commemorate the Fourth of July by teaching readers how to protest it.

The Chinese are constantly needling Western nations, especially the United States, for allowing their love of speech and political freedom to interfere with important social goals. As you can see from the above quotes, Xi Jinping Thought has very deep roots in the modern American left. They will be a most receptive audience for China’s ideological sales pitch in the years to come.


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