On Censorship & Violence


It’s been a dizzying, remarkable week — and more to come if reports are to be believed. There’s been a lot of discussion on Facebook which I’ve participated in. The audience is limited there so I thought I’d share a few quick thoughts here.

Social problems of every type require a free exchange of ideas in discussion and debate.

On Censorship

A friend posted an article this morning from Reason.com reporting on efforts by Antifa to stop sales of Andy Ngo’s book, Unmasked: Inside Antifa’s Radical Plan to Destroy Democracy [Amazon, Powell’s Books]. Protests in Portland forced Powell’s Books to close early and to refrain from selling physical copies. Sales will be online only. (Antifa, it should be pointed out, is not an organization with a structure, leaders and program. It’s a loose “tendency” of generally like-minded people who more or less act independently.)

Antifa seems unwilling, and I think probably incapable, of debating the issues. They have no program beyond beyond anger and grievance. They simply resort to violence and intimidation to shut down discussion and censor opposing views.

It’s not just Antifa. Facebook and Twitter have hopped onto the censorship train suspending or terminating Trump’s account and some supporters. Parlor is offline entirely for the time being after Amazon terminated its server hosting for the platform.

While rational-sounding justifications are made, like preservation of public safety, censorship is a snake that will come back to bite you. Silencing people and driving them underground won’t make them go away. It forces them into echo chambers where reasoned and objective thought becomes more and more impossible. The danger posed by rightist and racist forces only increases as they organize in hiding.

Censorship shuts down political space for everyone. Social problems of every type require a free exchange of ideas in discussion and debate. If censorship is allowed, who decides which “good” ideas can be expressed and which “bad” ideas must be suppressed? Someday the censor may show up at my door or yours.

On Violence

This weekend we’re seeing a stark example of the consequences of violence. We also saw it this summer.

Immediately after George Floyd’s killing in May millions marched peacefully in demonstrations across the United Sates and abroad. It was an instantaneous organic expression of outrage at the on-going oppression of Blacks and minorities. It had the promise of becoming a powerful social force for change.

Unfortunately this movement was hijacked by irresponsible, petty and selfish elements who fancied themselves to be revolutionaries or whatever. They labored under the illusion that breaking a store window would defeat injustice, or perhaps they just wanted a free TV. Whatever their motives and thinking, they drove away millions of serious activists who wanted genuine change. The just cry of “Black Lives Matter” became a tarnished slogan, and the peaceful demonstrations stopped. Police violence, on the other hand, has not.

On January 6th, thousands of Trump supporters sieged the U.S. Capitol building intent on venting tempers, insurrection, coup, assassination… It’s hard to know exactly. Probably different participants had different goals. I oppose the action and the rightist politics behind it, but still the lessons of the day and its aftermath are instructive.

As a consequence of the violence, Washington DC today is an armed camp in lockdown. More troops will be in Washington this week than the U.S. has stationed in Iraq and Afghanistan combined. The stated goal is to prevent violence. In this, at least, I hope they succeed. But what are the other effects?

Embed from Getty Images

Embed from Getty Images

Embed from Getty Images

Top left: Portland riots. Top right: Siege on U.S. Capitol.
Bottom: Troops stationed in Washington, DC. (Getty Images)

This troop occupation has shut down people’s ability to exercise their First Amendment right of protest. The U.S. Park Service said today in a press briefing that they’ve issued permits allowing just two groups to gather during the Inauguration at sites safely away from the Capitol. Each gathering will be limited to just 100 participants. Everyone will have to go through metal detectors and will be under close surveillance throughout. The Park Service said others have been turned away and told not to come. Their rights to gather and express themselves have been suspended.

Whether you’re pro-Trump, anti-Trump, pro-Biden, anti-Biden, or anything else, the repressive weight of the rulers has been brought down on everyone as a consequence of the violence. An opportunity to gather and engage in politics with people at this significant event is lost.

Point of Clarification

I’ve had reservations since posting this entry and even took it down briefly. I stand by what I’ve said here except that I don’t want to imply a moral equivalency between what I consider the generally-progressive goals of the left and generally-reactionary goals of the right. My intent is not to council the right on a better path to victory. My point is to emphasize the negative consequences of violence, for everyone. I defend the democratic right of all sides to protest peacefully, left and right both.

For more on this subject, I wrote about The Strength & Impact of Peaceful Mass Action on June 4, 2020.

Title image: Wonderlane on Unsplash. Others are embedded from Getty Images.

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