The Petty Tyrants of the Anti-Woke Brigade
Conservatives claimed the mantle of free speech. Once in power, they're enthusiastic censors.
Just a few short months ago, conservatives were still claiming to be the great defenders of free speech, taking a stand against censorious liberals. Social media companies, run by progressives, censor conservative thought, they say. Colleges and universities, once bastions of free thought and open exchange, are now centers of woke groupthink, with professors canned for expressing politically incorrect (or simply misinterpreted) opinions that veer from the popular left orthodoxy and students afraid to speak their minds. Where liberals saw “accountability” for bad actions, conservatives saw “cancel culture.”
This all scaled up with the right-wing attacks on what they called “critical race theory,” a term initially coined in the legal academy to describe a kind of post-modern legal theory that questions assumptions of neutrality in law, especially but not exclusively with regard to race, and that has now been broadened out to encapsulate virtually any discussion of race, inequality, or oppression in any sort of educational setting. It was a scam from the beginning, invented as a strategy by a right-wing activist to undercut faith in public education. And it worked, in part because there was a tiny grain of truth in all the right-wing hand-wringing over cancel culture and free speech and liberal censoriousness — some people on the left are actually quite censorious when they attain power, and there really are debates on the left over the value of free speech as a concept. Younger Americans in particular are less committed to free speech ideals that previous generations. The leftist magazine Dissent did a whole series on free speech, in which several leftists argued against long-standing American free speech norms. So yes, it is true that the left today has a free speech problem, and many committed liberals — myself included — agreed that, in a handful of cases, the big dust-ups about incursions on free speech were in fact instances of unjustifiable censorship and punishment.
But the right has a much bigger free speech problem. And they are unafraid of being tremendously hypocritical — using the claim of “free speech” to bash progressives and gain political power, only to use that power to constrain speech and censor far, far more than any Democrat ever has.
Take Texas: Republicans in that state are currently on a book-banning spree, including books on race, gender, and a series of pretty innocuous titles — one about a quinceañera, and, ironically, one called “The Year They Burned the Books.” Hundreds of books have been pulled off of school library shelves. And Republicans in Texas have passed a vaguely-worded bill that could penalize teachers for teaching all kinds of topics, from the history of American racism to the genocide of Native Americans to Reconstruction — basic things that students should be learning in history, English, and social studies classes.
Teachers in Texas today cannot teach racism or slavery as “anything other than deviations from, betrayals of, or failures to live up to the authentic founding principles of the United States.” That’s a problem, given that a compromise to allow slavery to continue was written into the Constitution, and many leading historians and scholars would argue that racism and slavery were not deviations from American history, but central to it. And the Texas legislature has flat-out said that certain important works cannot be taught — a bizarre rule for educators, who ideally present students with a great many works to read, and help to teach them to read critically.
The same people who have mocked college professors for issuing content warnings before assigning troubling reading material have now passed legislation barring teachers from fomenting feelings of “responsibility, blame or guilt” in their students — in other words, requiring that teachers anticipate their students’ reactions to American history and literature, and treating them with kid gloves to avoid any feelings of upset. A few years ago, Republicans would have been decrying this as liberal “snowflake” behavior. Now they’re mandating it — only for the apparently quite tender feelings of conservative snowflakes.