The Phony Free Speech Panic Versus Right Wing Fascism

Few trends in American discourse are more revolting than the phony free speech panic. Substack sobbers, like Glenn Greenwald and Matt Taibbi, declare their martyrdom while collecting thousands of dollars in subscription fees. They compete only with multimillionaire TV talk show hosts, such Tucker Carlson and Bill Maher, for the ultimate prize in absurdity: Claiming that “free speech is under assault” at the same moment they communicate anything they please, no matter how baseless or destructive, to large audiences.

According to the hysterical and paranoid script of contemporary popularity, the “woke mob” on social media has intimidated academic institutions and monopolistic tech companies to reduce the potential for free expression, punish dissent from “social justice” orthodoxy, and usher the country to the edge of a Mao-like cultural revolution.

In March, Matt Taibbi had a conversation with perpetually obtuse cultural critic, Thomas Frank, attempting to determine if “American liberalism has abandoned free speech.” They did not meet near the weightlifting bench in the yard of a prison, but over Zoom from the comfort of their homes. Taibbi offered the unedited interview to his subscribers. Making the entire exercise even more farcical was that it happened in reaction to criticism Frank received after the publication of an essay in the Guardian, a British newspaper with American offices, and an international audience numbering in the millions.

Glenn Greenwald recently took a brief sabbatical from defending Donald Trump and talking with BFF, Tucker Carlson, to speak with Fox News host, Tammy Bruce, about the “left’s quest to censor dissenting opinion.”

Speaking of Carlson, the “firebrand fop,” to quote Chris Cuomo, has transformed his obsession with “wokeism” into a new genre of infotainment, offering incoherent nightly ravings about how “they’re coming for you,” while encouraging his frightened audience to subscribe to Fox Nation – an internet broadcast programming service – where they can watch full length episodes of “Tucker Carlson Today.”

Bill Maher, who unlike Carlson is not a right wing maniac but a moderate Democrat, offers weekly lamentations of the “illiberal left” on his HBO program, warning his insipidly howling audience about the dangers of overzealous college students.

It is certainly true that Twitter addicts are often excessive in their outrage over seemingly minor matters, and there is plenty of room for debate regarding recent changes to campus speech policies, but watching Greenwald, Maher, Taibbi, Carlson, and their brethren obsess over threats to free speech from liberals is like witnessing a camper douse his forearms with bug spray while getting eaten alive by wolves.

They expose their hypocrisy, and more important, the dangerous direction American politics is taking, by offering no comment on actual laws that penalize, threaten, or suppress speech and protest. Republican governors of Florida, Iowa, Oklahoma, and Tennessee have signed laws prohibiting the discussion of “critical race theory” in public school classrooms, including at the university level. The Iowa law also bans any teacher-led examination of “white privilege.” Arkansas has passed a similar law limiting what topics state agencies can broach during employment training sessions.

Summarizing the fascistic and oppressive movement to make pedagogical curricula, syllabi, and discourse subject to right wing, state approval, a reporter for Education Week writes, “15 states have introduced bills that seek to restrict how teachers can discuss racism, sexism, and other social issues.” Republican legislators in Arizona propose the penalty of a $5,000 fine against any teacher “promoting one side of a controversial issue.” One could imagine that a school board member who attended “stop the steal” rallies might have different definitions of “controversial” and “one side” than the average teacher, student, or parent.

Former president and aspiring dictator, Donald Trump, recently wrote – or more likely had Stephen Miller take a break from his “Faces of Death” movie marathon to write – an op-ed encouraging states to “remove funding” from schools that teach critical race theory. Trump also calls on states to develop “alternative credentialing bodies that can certify great teachers who know how to instill a sense of love for America.”

The Republican campaign to destroy academic freedom, keep students uninformed by censoring the history of institutional racism in the United States, and punish, intimidate, and silence teachers who dare to defy totalitarian dogma aligns with the ongoing attack against political protestors.

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, continuing to establish his fascist bona fides at the behest of the Mar-a-Lago Ayatollah, recently signed into law the “Combating Public Disorder Act,” which creates the new crime of “mob intimidation.” The law vests power in the hands of police to determine what constitutes “mob intimidation” during a political rally. It also gives courts more flexibility to charge any attendees of a protest with crimes if even a handful of protestors commit acts of vandalism or defacement of monuments.

Speaking with In These Times, Max Gaston, an attorney with the Florida ACLU, warns that the law “criminalizes peaceful protest,” and could have theoretically applied to “every major demonstration in the last several years, from the Women’s March to March for Our Lives.”

In These Times also reports that law enforcement advocacy groups and police unions are leading a highly funded campaign to lobby for similar legislation in 14 other states. One such state is Minnesota, where a particularly deranged Republican legislator proposes that anyone convicted of a crime during a protest should become permanently ineligible for student loans, food stamps, and unemployment relief.

Meanwhile, Missouri, Oklahoma, Florida, and several other states have either proposed or already passed laws that give immunity to motorists who strike protestors blocking traffic. Vehicular homicide is a particularly awful form of “cancellation” – something the heroic pundit class might want to consider the next time they spill tears over “cancel culture.”

It does not require the psychological insight of Sigmund Freud to understand that the Republican commitment to killing protest movements and eliminating lessons on systemic racism from the classroom is a self-serving reaction against the historic Black Lives Matter protests of 2020 that developed after the murder of George Floyd, and their own loss of the presidency, largely due to the high turnout of Black voters in Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Georgia, and Latino and Native American voters in Arizona.

Although the political calculations are clear, revoking the free speech rights of educators, and attempting to ruin the lives of protestors, are not politics as usual, and no one concerned about the survival of democracy should treat it with a blasé attitude. They are elements in an explosive device targeting democracy with immolation. In a word, it is fascism.

Anti-education and anti-protest fascism connect with voter suppression bills throughout the country, the partisan intentions of Trump-loving officials seeking secretary of state offices in multiple states, and the Republican Senate’s refusal to support even modest efforts to protect voting rights with national legislation. It is a full scale war against the notion and exercise of multiracial democracy.

While the right wing advances fascistic positions and policies, the Substack martyrs and talk show warriors have distracted the American public with a fixation on “cancel culture” and “wokeism.” Bill Maher, to his credit, consistently decries Republican opposition to fair elections, but cannot resist offering a false equivalence between the right wing and “political correctness.”

Given that the stakes of the current political battle include democracy itself, and that free speech is actually under threat, not from excitable liberal arts majors, but from Republican legislators, governors, and presidential-hopefuls, any distraction helps to invite catastrophe. There is no time or energy to waste crying about Twitter hashtags and college campuses. Recent dismantlement of democratic norms and institutions in Hungary and Poland show exactly what Americans risk with apathy, complacency, and “bothsidesism” in the face of right wing tyranny.

The violence, hatred, and chaos of January 6th was a mere preview of what the Republican Party has planned for America.

David Masciotra is the author of five books, including Mellencamp: American Troubadour (University Press of Kentucky, 2015) and I Am Somebody: Why Jesse Jackson Matters (Bloomsbury, 2020).