For a certain kind of person, the highlight of William F. Buckley Jr.’s extraordinary television career was his losing his temper with Gore Vidal, calling him a “little queer” on a live broadcast and threatening to punch him. Buckley himself was embarrassed by the episode, partly because of his rare descent into public vulgarity and partly because he had lost his cool, allowing himself to be provoked by such a figure as Gore Vidal.
Steven Crowder is, at the moment, perhaps regretting his use of the word “queer,” too, and some of his other boorish behavior, as well he should. But the by-now unfortunately familiar Caffeine-Free Diet Maoist freakout of which Crowder is today’s target has nothing to do with his spotty manners. It has to do with ochlocracy and streitbare Demokratie, two concepts with which contemporary readers should make themselves more familiar.
It also has do to, apparently, with the unhappy high-school experience of Carlos Maza.
Maza is a writer for Vox, and the first thing he would like you to know about him is that he is gay — he tweets, illiterately, under the handle @gaywonk. He has made it his business to pressure companies such as Google (which owns YouTube) to engage in the moral cleansing of their platforms, abolishing those voices that do not comport with his own views about sexuality — and politics, and much more. When he tried and failed to get YouTube to entirely ban Crowder, he attacked the gay and lesbian employees of the company, charging them with cowardice for maintaining employment with a firm that “has decided to side with the people who made our lives miserable in high school.” As anybody who has ever spent any time in our nation’s hideous capital city knows: For some people, high school never ends.
(Maza does not seem to be the sort of man who is able to understand this, but high school was always going to be hard for him, irrespective of his sexual tastes.)
That high-school misery has informed Maza’s public life. He is not exactly a journalist — but then what Vox does is not exactly journalism — but the very thing he claims to abhor: a bully. He has, among other things, called for physical assaults on those who have the bad sense to hold, in public, views at variance with his own, the idea being to “humiliate them at every turn” and “make them dread public organizing.”
I have spent the last year or so examining this line of thinking and have written up what I have learned in a book, The Smallest Minority, which will be published at the end of July. There is both more to it than is obvious and less. The motives of culture-war peons such as Maza are clear enough — he makes them clear enough — but the broader ideology at work is underappreciated. That figures such as Maza — and, more consequently, the suits at Google — are not conscious and articulate followers of that ideology is not especially important. One can be a victim of bad ideas even if one does not understand them. Consider the sorry oeuvre of Matthew Yglesias if you doubt this.
Ochlocracy is an ancient concept that denotes, approximately, “mob rule.” But “mob rule” does not mean only riots and lynchings and other acts of extralegal violence. More commonly, ochlocracy functions through the legitimate organs of the state or through other entities, such as businesses and professional associations. In these cases, the threat of mob violence, or the simple fact of a mob demand, is sufficient to get those with power to act as the mob wishes, to do the mob’s dirty work for it and thereby relieve the rabble of the exertion of a riot. As Edward Gibbon tells the story, the mob need not murder its enemy — not if it can get the state to act on its behalf:
The people demanded with angry clamors the head of the public enemy. Cleander, who commanded the Praetorian Guards, ordered a body of cavalry to sally forth and disperse the seditious multitude. The multitude fled with precipitation towards the city; several were slain, and many more were trampled to death; but when the cavalry entered the streets their pursuit was checked by a shower of stones and darts from the roofs and windows of the houses. The footguards, who had long been jealous of the prerogatives and insolence of the Praetorian cavalry, embraced the party of the people. The tumult became a regular engagement and threatened a general massacre. The Praetorians at length gave way, oppressed with numbers; and the tide of popular fury returned with redoubled violence against the gates of the palace, where Commodus lay dissolved in luxury, and alone unconscious of the civil war . . . Commodus started from his dream of pleasure and commanded that the head of Cleander should be thrown out to the people. The desired spectacle instantly appeased the tumult.
The Crowder episode is not quite as dramatic as that, but it unfolded along the same lines. When Maza lodged his complaints about Crowder — whose actual offense, it should be noted, was occasionally vivisecting Maza’s purported acts of journalism — the powers that be at YouTube did their best impersonation of Pontius Pilate. They found no fault in the man — or not fault sufficient to show he had broken the terms of service. Crowder’s content “did not violate our Community Guidelines,” YouTube said.
And then, predictably, it changed its mind and caved to the mob, “demonetizing” Crowder’s programming. And YouTube amended its views: “Even if a creator’s content doesn’t violate our community guidelines, we will take a look at the broader context and impact, and if their behavior is egregious and harms the broader community, we may take action.” Which is to say: It doesn’t matter if Steven Crowder follows the rules if the mob hates Steven Crowder. Dennis Prager, a mild-mannered Jewish talk-radio host who does a weekly segment on happiness, has discovered the same thing: Because he takes a traditionalist view of family, religion, sex, and community life, his “PragerU” videos have been restricted on YouTube and removed by Facebook, while his advertisements have been prohibited by Twitter.
(These episodes of conservative-leaning writers and broadcasters making themselves highly dependent on the whims of California-based technology companies attest, I think, to the wisdom of National Review’s business model.)
That is ochlocracy in a nutshell. It does not matter what the rules say — or what the law says, either. While private-sector actors such as Google have behaved shamefully in these matters, the much more serious concern in the immediate future is the commandeering of law enforcement by left-wing activists and career-minded Democratic officials who have used both civil and criminal investigations to try to stop political speech with which they disagree, for instance with Democratic prosecutors targeting climate-change skeptics for the “crime” of believing the wrong things and saying so.
Ochlocracy is the how, and streitbare Demokratie is the why. The concept of streitbare Demokratie, or “militant democracy,” is a German idea first articulated by Karl Loewenstein in response to the rise of Nazism and other totalitarian movements through means that were partly formally democratic. Streitbare Demokratie is the idea that liberal democracies must sometimes behave in illiberal and anti-democratic ways in order to preserve liberalism and democracy from much worse threats. “Democracies withstood the ordeal of the World War much better than did autocratic states — by adopting autocratic methods,” Loewenstein wrote. “Few seriously objected to the temporary suspension of constitutional principles for the sake of national self-defense. During the war, observes Léon Blum, legality takes a vacation.” Streitbare Demokratie is the principle under which Germany bans certain kinds of political parties and Austria bans some political books.
This is the thinking behind the current efforts to carefully cultivate a sense of emergency and hysteria (on both the Left and the Right) and the attempt, mainly by progressives, to equate speech and violence. This is why Democrats are not making the relatively easy argument that Donald Trump is a buffoon or less than entirely competent and are instead making the much more difficult case — the risible case — that he is Adolf Hitler, the moral equivalent of Adolf Hitler, or Hitler-like. If there is an existential threat to democracy, then democracy can be set aside to combat it, the theory goes; if there is an existential threat to the rule of law, then the rule of law may be violated to meet that threat. If we are three tweets away from the Holocaust . . .
But, of course, we aren’t. Steven Crowder is a lot of things, but a genuine threat to public safety is not one of them. The executives at Google know this, just as they know that Dennis Prager is no kind of threat to anyone or anything with the possible exception of a good cigar.
While I myself am a free-speech absolutist and do not support the censorship engaged in by many European governments (and some governments elsewhere), one can understand, even if one does not condone, outlawing national-socialist political parties in Germany in the 1940s. The possibility of a revanchist Nazi movement coming to power was not unthinkable at the time. But the American context is rather different. Steven Crowder’s mocking Carlos Maza as a “lisping queer” is ugly and stupid. It is not violence, near to violence, or even rhetorically violent. And the protestations of Mark Zuckerberg and his fellow technology titans notwithstanding, suppressing that kind of speech has nothing to do with “public safety.” It has to do with Carlos Maza’s stated desire to “humiliate” and, if possible, to silence those who see the world in a different way. That Google and Twitter and Facebook and other companies choose to make themselves a party to that is shameful, and a disservice to democratic discourse.