Magazine | August 27, 2018, Issue

Against the Rage Machine

ALex Jones (Sean P. Anderson via Flickr)

I’ll admit it. I used to have sort of a soft spot for Alex Jones. If his shtick didn’t involve inciting violence and immiserating the families of dead Newtown kids, he would go down as one of the great performers of our age. The sheer commitment to the craft and the character, the Swiss-level precision of his comedic timing, the fearless, even brazen dialogue — gay frogs! — poised precariously between winking and earnest. I mean, the guy makes Andy Kaufman look like Jesse Watters.

Unfortunately, a lot of Jones’s fans aren’t in on the joke. And some of them do bad stuff, such as bringing a .223 to D.C. stoner hangout Comet Pizza and gunning for imaginary pedophiles like a modern-day Van Helsing. For this and sundry other reasons, I don’t blame tech giants like Facebook, Apple, and YouTube for running him off their platforms.

I get why many conservatives are concerned that this slope is slipperier than a shirtless Jones in an Austin heat wave, but I think they’re fighting the wrong battle.

The problem isn’t that Alex Jones is banned from Facebook. The problem is that Facebook is big enough, and influential enough, and operates like a de facto public utility enough, that it’s understandable why people would confuse its discretion for an attack on free speech.

It’s also a problem, as Ben Shapiro points out at National Review Online, that these companies justified their moves on the basis of Jones’s “hate speech” — both the wokest and the vaguest weapon at hand. Jones has been an anti-Semite of the blood-libel, None Dare Call It Conspiracy, Protocols of the Elders of Zion variety for at least 25 years, and has long doled out veiled and not-so-veiled threats of violence and retribution against public officials and private citizens alike. So it comes off as a bit disingenuous for Facebook to toss Jones for “using dehumanizing language to describe people who are transgender, Muslims and immigrants.”

But we know why tech-bro CEOs do this sort of thing. As Kevin D. Williamson wrote in these pages last year, big corporations default to progressivism because of the “moral asymmetry” of the left- and right-leaning publics:

 Conservatives may roll their eyes a little bit at promises to build windmills so efficient that we’ll cease needing coal and oil, but progressives (at least a fair portion of them) believe that using fossil fuels may very well end human civilization. The nation’s F-150 drivers are not going to organize a march on Chevron’s headquarters if it puts a billion bucks into biofuels, but the nation’s Subaru drivers might very well do so if it doesn’t.

The same asymmetry characterizes the so-called social issues. The Left will see to it that Brendan Eich is driven out of his position at Mozilla for donating to an organization opposed to gay marriage, but the Right will not see to it that Tim Cook is driven out of his position for supporting gay marriage. 

I’d add that the CEOs-cum-activists’ position on these things is overdetermined. It’s not just that they’re incentivized to do the bidding of progressive outrage mobs — it’s that they agree with them. They come from the same meritocratic milieus and were formed by the same elite institutions. The next CEO of the world’s first trillion-dollar company is probably at a Berkeley Democratic Socialists of America meeting right now.

This is a troubling phenomenon, and one whose consequences will grow as social media, the corporation, and social-media corporations become the last standing forms of civic association. And so it makes sense to push back on the means and justification of Jones’s de-platforming, even while affirming those platforms’ right to do it. This is the approach that our David French, writing in the New York Times, and Shapiro take.

But conservatives should avoid the temptation to become big-government free-speech activists imagining that there is something justiciable here. Nor should we indulge in the sugar-high pleasures of manufacturing outrage mobs of our own, as, I admit, it was so enticing to do in the case of recent Times hire Sarah Jeong, a Berkeley and Harvard Law grad and a member of the wealthiest and highest-achieving demographic in the country who the Left imagines is within her rights to call white people cultureless dogs fit only to live underground until they are bred out of existence, because power or something.

Jeong is undoubtedly a bigot, and the Times hiring of her and subsequent full-throated defense of her bigotry is instructive. But pushing for her firing, as many did, on the grounds that the Left must be made to play by its own rules is not a winning strategy. The Left is in charge of most of our communications channels and has proven itself very comfortable with cognitive dissonance. It will never have to play by its own rules, at least not often enough that we can hope to win a war of attrition.

Better, I think, to let the Left have a monopoly on “Shut up!” as an argument and rededicate ourselves to the task of actually persuading people with ideas. The Left’s cultural bullying went a long way toward creating the backlash that gave us the current regime. It would be a shame if the only thing that backlash accomplished were to universalize its enemy’s tactics.

Daniel Foster — Daniel Foster is a former news editor of National Review Online.

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