This Is a Golden Age of Censorship

            It’s too bad we can’t monetize censorship, because we truly live in a golden age of speech suppression. In this deeply polarized society, the one thing we can all agree upon is that people we disagree with need to shut up.

            Officially, freedom of speech is a key commandment in our national civic religion. We love free speech—in the abstract. Nine out of ten Americans told a 2022 Knight Foundation/Ipsos study that “protecting free speech is an important part of American democracy” and that “people should be allowed to express unpopular opinions.” Yay, America!

            When people express specific unpopular opinions, not so yay. 70% of respondents to the same study said that, for example, COVID-19 misinformation ought to be banned. Some even called for those who spread it (even though some of it may turn out to be true) to be jailed.

            Young people often call for those they disagree with to shut their yaps. A College Pulse/Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression poll found that 71% of today’s college students would ban someone from speaking on campus if that person viewed transgender people as being mentally ill or they thought Black Lives Matter was a hate group. 57% said that anti-abortion activists should never be allowed to speak in public.

            And if objectionable speech manages to slip through? 63% think it’s OK to shout you down if you’re saying something they don’t like.
            Nowadays, though, young people are big targets of censorship too.

At my alma mater, Columbia, administrators have been coming down like a ton of bricks against peaceful student demonstrators calling for a ceasefire in Gaza and for the university to divest its financial investments in Israel-affiliated companies. Back in November, long before American college and university campuses saw the current spread of encampments and other protests, Columbia suspended two student groups, Students for Justice in Palestine and Jewish Voice for Peace.

Why? No reason was given. “The university did not elaborate on how exactly the groups did that except to say they had held ‘unauthorized’ events that included unspecified ‘threatening rhetoric and intimidation,’” The New York Times reported. As an alumnus and veteran of protests there, I can attest that Columbia’s rules do not require demonstrators to obtain authorization from campus authorities.

No pro-Palestinian protester at Columbia had carried out any actual violence or violent threats. They still haven’t.

After wealthy pro-Israel alums withdrew their donations, cash-grubbing Columbia president Nemat “Minouche” Shafik went full-spectrum fascist in voluntary testimony on  Capitol Hill. Calling the slogan “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” anti-Semitic (it isn’t), she cravenly groveled before a cabal of far-right Congressional goons, agreed that anti-Semitism is rampant on the Columbia campus (a lie), claimed that she had launched investigations of pro-Palestine instructors (if so, it was news to them) and when Republican lawmakers demanded that she fire a tenured professor of Middle Eastern, South Asian and African studies for allegedly saying the October 7th attack by Hamas was “awesome” (he didn’t), she agreed to get rid of and other educators him (she can’t).

To drive the point home, Shafik suspended pro-Palestinian student demonstrators (pro-Israel marchers get a free pass) and asked heavily-armed NYPD riot cops to violently arrest them and steal their personal possessions. Campus security guards shut down WKCR, the campus radio station, so student journalists could no longer report the news.

            Fascist administrators ordered similar police crackdowns at protests at such institutions as Princeton, USC, UT Austin, Emerson, Cal State Poly Humboldt and Emory, where Atlanta cops tased and maced students as they held them down. Brutal tactics only serve to further inflame passions, a fact reconfirmed when the encampment at Columbia was immediately reassembled the next day. USC valedictorian Asna Tabassum, denied her right to deliver her commencement address because she is Muslim and supports the people of Gaza, has received infinitely more attention to her message because she was censored.

            Not wanting to miss out on this latest McCarthyite moment, however, employers who support Israel’s slaughter of Gazans are firing journalists, teachers, athletes, editors and tech workers who disagree. Far-right Republican House Speaker Mike Johnson has demanded that federal workers who oppose the bloodshed be fired while a group of pro-genocide corporate CEOs is organizing a blacklist of pro-Palestine college students to distribute to major companies so these young people won’t be able to find a job after graduation. (Student activists have taken to wearing masks and scarves to avoid being doxxed by reactionary supporters of Israel’s war.)

            Those who resort to censorship do so because they don’t have a credible message of their own. When the overwhelming majority of the American public, Democrats and Republicans alike, disapproves of Israel—a longstanding ally of the U.S.—it’s clear that the usual lame “if you oppose Israel you’re anti-Semitic” trope is no longer effective. We are no longer scared.

Like the political parties who work harder to suppress the vote for the other party than to motivate and excite their own supporters, those who have nothing affirmative to say for their own position strive to make sure that those on the other side, who have a strong argument, cannot express themselves.

            Censorship is a tool used by those who know they are wrong.

            Censoring antiwar voices is nothing new. Columbia suspended and expelled opponents of the Vietnam War in 1968. And when the Russo-Ukrainian war broke out in 2022, the U.S. government and its media mouthpieces censored Russian media outlets, boycotted Russian culture and even attacked Russian cats. But the truth about Ukraine—its corrupt president, its official romance with neo-Nazism, its anti-democratic regime and its low chance of success—is coming out.

            Yet optimism is the wrong response to this attempt to crush voices of conscience. Every spasm of mass censorship leaves a trail of cynicism, stifled voices, stunted careers and an ever-shrinking spectrum of expression. Remember Al Jazeera America? Phil Donahue’s show on MSNBC?

            They were casualties of the War on Terror’s Bush-era censors; we could use them now.

            Again, we are losing good people with important voices.

(Ted Rall (Twitter: @tedrall), the political cartoonist, columnist and graphic novelist, co-hosts the left-vs-right DMZ America podcast with fellow cartoonist Scott Stantis. You can support Ted’s hard-hitting political cartoons and columns and see his work first by sponsoring his work on Patreon.)

3 Comments. Leave new

  • alex_the_tired
    April 26, 2024 8:48 AM

    This dovetails surprisingly well with your cartoon about the shrinking police force, and both are explained by a condition that has existed for decades. Back in 2001, George Carlin said, “You don’t need a formal conspiracy when interests converge. These people went to the same universities and fraternities, they’re on the same boards of directors, they’re on the same country clubs, they have like interests. They don’t need to call a meeting; they know what is good for THEM, and they are getting it.”

    The cops don’t need more cops. Oh, sure, for the performative stuff, they still need patrolmen. But police work itself? Look at the protests. All those protestors waving their crudely made signs and covering their faces? The police almost certainly have their phone pings. That’s most of the effort right there. From those, the AI programs can put together lists of known associates, supporters, etc., in no time. For the few with enough brains to leave their phones at home? AI has gait-capture software. How you walk is a fingerprint. Every person who was there has been identified or — and this is the insidious part — must now consider that their identity has been compromised.

    The protests themselves are meaningless because they will not accomplish anything. And for most of the protestors, for all their hue and cry, it doesn’t mean anything to them anyway. It’s a coming-of-age ritual (usually for rich kids who can screw up their lives and still live in comfort) like getting some in the backseat of a car. Look at Occupy Wall Street. Hell, look at the Vietnam War protests. Those anti-war peace and love hippies became the greed is good boomers. The people carrying on at Occupy Wall Street? They’ve all settled down. Exxon’s still making a fortune. The prisons are full to bursting and Harvey Weinstein just got a case thrown out on a technicality because he’s rich enough to keep lawyers going for years on his appeals.

    And as long as enough people get their half a loaf of bread and a good seat at the circus, to hell with everyone else. That’s the funnel that everyone truly in charge knows exists. A few people further down the ladder know it too. But not enough. Once the coastal cities start to flood and the first waves of American refugees start pouring into cities 100 miles inland, devastating them with homeless encampments, a lot more people will figure it out. Too late, of course. But still.

  • DaniilAdamov
    April 26, 2024 1:54 PM

    “Censorship is a tool used by those who know they are wrong.”

    Then judging by the beginning of your article, a majority of Americans across the political spectrum are wrong and they know it? 🙂

    I was joking when I wrote that, but actually, perhaps that is the case… I think a lot of people feel at least some doubt about their views when they aren’t busy being righteous at each other. It’s not that they think they are completely wrong, per se. It’s that they know they can’t possibly convince even a reasonable person of everything that they believe, unless that person also decides to believe it. But you can’t just let people get away with saying things!

  • The right wing wants to control education. Standard procedure is to bully those in the leadership. Big Jewish donors have a lot of leverage. A lot of research money is involved. And government contracts. The MIC has a huge stake in the war. They are raking in billions. As with Iraq and Vietnam. Cancelling ceremonies and speeches and jailing and expelling students is small potatoes. The message to school CEOs is do that or we get someone who will. Florida has been beating up on their schools.
    “Antisemitism” has become the “communism” of yesteryear.
    My thanks go out to the young people who are so offended by the genocide in Gaza. They have the time and exposure to the information. Will their outrage lessen over time? I protested Vietnam. I haven’t changed. I’ve been putting my letters in the local papers. Between 1990 and 2024 Biden has received over $6 million from Jewish sources. The next highest is only $2.5 million.

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