Are we really worried about the white nationalists?
Are they such a threat we’re ready to surrender our one liberty that remains intact? And if the answer is obvious, then why are outfits like ProPublica, which should be champions of open inquiry and free debate, pushing a new regime of censoriousness?
First, we hate Nazis. There was never any question about that. If there’s one thing that can be said about Americans, it’s the thing Octavio Paz said, that we prefer judging history to understanding it. In re judgments vis-à-vis history, we have no easier call than condemning Nazis straight to hell.
But is there any reason to think that Charlottesville augurs ill, that the tiki-Nazis come from some deep, dark place in American life and may yet drag us all back there? I think the idea is ridiculous, conceivable only to a mind that thinks history is a record of how things were done erroneously in the past. Nobody who understands how things came to be thinks there’s any reason they would go back to how they were, racewise.
Now, I have no special insight into the purity of heart of my countrymen, no special meter to gauge the prevalence of racial prejudice. I’ll suppose a general coarsening of spirit lately. Surely, somebody somewhere has noticed his inchoate racial anxiety coagulating into something like an actual misgiving.
But I think most of us mean well even now. Of the many dooms that might await us — fiscal, political, military, cultural — another Reich seems to me among the least plausible. We hate Nazis. We hate Nazis so much, it seems, that some of us are ready to undo our free speech regime simply because a few people do not hate the Nazis. Some of them have even figured out how to make words and put them on the Internet.
Consider three scenarios:
Only one of the three is unimaginable; we are not becoming Nazis.
But the other two depend only upon our disposition toward commanding what is right and forbidding what is wrong. There’s little difference in spirit between the mufti of the East and the West; only the objects of their disapprobation vary. This one wants to ban insufficiently repressive women’s underwear, and that one gendered pronouns, while a third denounces us all for inconstant adherence to the Jacobin calendar. (A happy Fructidor 6th to you, citizen!)
The imams, at least, have the dignity to claim authority from divine sources. In the West, our would-be censors boast in their lack of it. The First Amendment only applies to government action, they say. We are merely private actors, seizing control of the regimen morum without authority.
Enter ProPublica. In the wake of news that several Internet service companies had cut power to the white power website Stormfront, following its publication of an extraordinarily vile article on the fatal victim of the Charlottesville ramming, ProPublica published an article that’s clearly meant as a new paradigm.
Headlined “Despite Disavowals, Leading Tech Companies Help Extremist Sites Monetize Hate,” the article singles out companies such as Paypal, Amazon, and Newsmax for doing business with some of the biggest “hate sites” on the Internet. One problem with this nascent pressure campaign is that the Internet does in fact have a handful of gatekeepers. If we turn them into censors, we imperil free speech as surely as a government edict.
ProPublica’s list of 69 sites includes plenty of open racists, but the outlet also proposes ostracizing groups such as Jihad Watch, the Center for Security Policy, and FAIR US. Now, I hold no brief for any of those groups, but to lump them in with racial hate groups is to compound category error upon category error. Racism is not the same thing as irreligiosity is not the same thing as xenophobia — and none of them have much to do with homosexuality. Various minor Catholic groups are on the list for anti-Semitism and/or peculiar doctrines. You start by trying to stamp out racism, and in no time, you’re weighing in on whether it’s orthodox to believe in the literal reconstruction of the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem.
The problem is that “hate groups” doesn’t cohere as a category — you might as well try to define “bad guys.” ProPublica knows this, so it relies upon lists provided by the Anti-Defamation League and the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC). The outlet is unable to explain its reasons for doing so, instead relying on a rhetorical pogo stick to jump over Hume’s old gap between “is” and “ought.” That is, it’s a fact that the SPLC has created a list of supposed hate sites, and one can report this neutrally, but to make such a list the basis of an argument requires moral judgment; ProPublica is saying that we “ought” to take the list seriously, and that businesses “ought” to make decisions based on it, but offers no argument as to why.
This is irresponsible and morally evasive, and all the more so because it involves the SPLC. The SPLC’s dishonesty, its money-grubbing, and its political motivations are all so well known that even Pro Publica acknowledges the “SPLC list is controversial in some circles, but the group does provide detailed public explanations for many of its designations.” So it has reasons? That’s not quite the same as having valid ones, is it?
Take the example of Charles Murray. In March, following riots over his appearance at Middlebury College, Murray wrote a lengthy rebuttal of the SPLC’s description of him. Where the SPLC claimed Murray had argued that white men were “intellectually, psychologically and morally superior,” Murray said that he’d “never argued anything remotely like that.” A respectable group would prove its claim or retract it; the SPLC has just ignored Murray.
When I was researching a piece on Murray earlier this year, I was stunned to find just how far the SPLC is willing to spread its slander. One expects the persecution of conservatives, but the SPLC also regularly targets evolutionary biologists, anthropologists, science writers, and others who write about similarities and differences among groups of people.
The late anthropologist Henry Harpending was abused viciously for a book theorizing that civilization had accelerated human evolution, not because the theory is true or untrue, but because it might point one down a road to racism. Nicholas Wade, the former New York Times science writer, came in for similar abuse, as have the educational psychologists Linda Gottfredson and Arthur Jensen.
That humans have some group-based biological differences is as much a fact as Tay-Sachs disease or sickle-cell anemia, so what the SPLC is trying to do here is wrong in principle. As a result, the group often resorts to slander and misstatement, to occasionally comic effect. In one hilarious example, the SPLC insinuated that there was something wrong with wanting to protect one’s website from crippling DDoS (distributed denial of service) attacks, as this tactic is sometimes “used against racist websites by vigilantes seeking to staunch their noxious messaging.” Got that? Web security is racist, because sometimes activists might want to mess with your website.
The SPLC is an underhanded and ill-motivated group that no respectable journalist should be citing as a neutral source. We don’t need them.
We oppose racism on moral grounds, not by denying science. If ProPublica wants to do the same, it should declare its intentions forthrightly, not outsource the responsibility to a group of cranks.
As for the idiot racists? Let them be idiot racists. They’re no threat. I’ll never understand the uberdemocrats who would trust every decision to a popular vote, but don’t trust the people to get even simple calls like this right.
The combined efforts of all the ProPublicas and SPLCs in the anti-racist cause don’t add up to one good Mel Brooks song. Of course, if you tried to publish “Springtime for Hitler” these days, you’d end up on a hate speech list. There’s nothing funny, you big homophobe, about a gay Hitler.