Wednesday, 8 August 2018

The War Against InfoWars

Preserving Free Speech Online Requires Challenging Both Corporate Power and Regressive Left Ideology. 

The big news on the internet over the past few days has been the sudden and dramatic purging of conspiracy theorist Alex Jones and his Infowars from various social media platforms. Linkedin and MailChimp are the latest to join the purge as of this writing. Apple, Spotify, Facebook and YouTube all shut down sites hosted by the controversial broadcaster, all apparently within a twelve hour timespan. He still survives on Twitter as of this writing. How long that will last remains to be seen. The choreography of it all is nothing short of frightening.

Almost like, well, a conspiracy.  How ironic. And how stupid.  Doubtlessly, a lot of people who wouldn't have bothered giving a man with a reputation for being a crackpot conspiracy theorist a first look would now be giving him a second, and subsequent look. Why would all these tech giants operate in tandem to shut someone down like this, if they weren't afraid of something he might actually have to say?  In their short sighted and arrogant rush to silence Alex Jones, Silicon Valley might well instead have vindicated him.

Good job guys.

And having witnessed all of this, it is indeed frightening and we do all have reason to be concerned. In the wake of it all, a number of narratives have emerged.

The one we hear the most, typically from the tech companies themselves and their more or less mainstream progressive talking heads, is that if you don't "perform hate speech" "glorify violence" or use "dehumanizing language to describe people who are transgender, Muslims and immigrants" then you should be just fine. Just follow orders, don't rock the boat and don't step out of line ideologically and all will be well. Obey the law and you have nothing to worry about.

So long as you target the right race and gender, you can still spew all the hate and drivel you want, though. Just ask the most recent addition to the New York Times editorial board, Sarah Jeong.

That's the line taken by the mainstream left these days. Which is very much why this blog and its own accompanying social media platforms now exist. Because the mainstream left has adopted this bootlicking mentality towards corporate power, so long as said corporations romanticize the right groups: people who are transgender, Muslim, feminist or immigrants, basically.

The mainstream left means business too. In more ways than one. They've gotten increasingly adept at pressuring media platforms and other kinds of businesses to ostracize people who buck their ideologies. This can range from going directly to internet providers and shutting down domain names to organizing boycotts of restaurants and other establishments that serve persona non grata.

This is all rationalized on the grounds that nobody is entitled to a platform, free speech only applies to the government, etc. I'm sure you've heard them all by now.  Not surprisingly, it quite misses the point. Sure nobody is entitled to a platform from which to express their views, but let's not pretend that deplatformings are totally random events unattributable to human agency. The Silicon Valley hipster "left" has a dangerous obsession with deplatforming people they disagree with, and perhaps it's high time they were reminded that they are similarly not entitled to tell everybody else who they will and will not host on their own platforms. The agency exercised by the abuser, not the legalistic hair splitting over which rights their victims do and do not have ought to be the issue here. People would not be deplatformed if regressive leftists did not actively campaign to do so. That's the issue here.

In opposition to the regressive left defense of censorship are two separate lines of defense in favor of free speech. Both of these tendencies have an admirable "I may not agree with what you have to say, but will defend to the death your right to say it" kind of attitude. Good on them. Both also accurately stress the fact that legacy media faces a very real threat to its ongoing business viability from newer social media platforms that more easily give voice to greater numbers of people. Again, rightly observed. Yet both weakened to an extent by their own ideological limitations and what they're not willing to say.

The larger and first of these come from the Intellectual Dark Web, Cultural Libertarian and Skeptic Community sorts. Self described classical liberals. Think Sargon of Akkad, Styxhexenhammer666, Paul Joseph Watson and the like. This narrative revolves largely around the progressive ideology of the censors. Tech firms concentrated in Silicon Valley are almost overwhelmingly dominated by what this group of free speech warriors terms progressive and even radical leftists hell bent on silencing anyone they do not like. That's a long list and one destined to include you, dear reader, somewhere along the line, so you'd do well to take heed.

The second and smaller of these comes from a group more akin to the old left. This would include Kyle Kulinski of Secular Talk, Jimmy Dore, columnist Caitlin Johnstone and the outstanding World Socialist Website. This narrative revolves more around the frightening degree of concentration of corporate power, and worry that if tech oligarchs can silence cranks like Alex Jones today, who might they similarly shut down in the future? State and corporate whistleblowers a-la Julian Assange? Environmental, anti-war or labor activists? We all have reason to be afraid.

Both of these generally good and noble groupings of people have their shortcomings though, and these revolve around their unwillingness to speak to the core of the other's ideology. The Intellectual Dark Web does not like to discuss how unrestrained corporate power not only enables but is essential to the dominance of regressive left and social justice warrior ideologies.

Acknowledging this would entail a reevaluation of what it means to be left of center politically, a reevaluation that people committed to unbridled capitalism would no doubt find uncomfortable. Sometimes, they do stray into these kinds of territories such as in Sargon of Akkad's very recent discussion of the Social Parliament and the idea of a YouTuber's union (Bravo!) But for the most part, questions of regulating or even (heaven forbid) social ownership of major social media platforms remains an ideological no-go zone. After all, why stop at just social media?

But the IDW and the Skeptic Community will find itself vulnerable and hamstrung as a movement if it's unwilling to look long and hard at the role that corporate power plays in constraining free thought.  And this will eventually have to mean a critical reexamination of their almost pathological anti-socialism and anti-Marxism.  The idea that major social media is a kind of public utility to which access does become a sort of citizenship right is one you hear occasionally, but it is a social democratic, or dare I say it, socialist concept. In the meantime, we have come to a place where people can be fired from their jobs or blacklisted from social media as much because of libertarian notions of the primacy of private property as because of social justice ideologies surrounding race, gender and identity.

The newer old lefties are not blameless either, for their own version of essentially the same reason. One definitely gets the sense that Kyle Kulinski and Jimmy Dore aren't huge fans of postmodernism and identity politics, but they're not in any big hurry to call out even the excesses of regressive leftism or SJWism either. They simply promote a truer to form leftism that's less about identity and social justice so called and more a back-to-basics emphasis on political economy.

I do applaud and would encourage this, but alone it is not enough. While the struggles for core racial and gender equality are integral to the left, I've argued elsewhere, at length, that current year intersectional identity politics is itself a system of power, and works largely to shore up rather than challenge corporate and state power. Much of the left is a ways away from acknowledging this at present. While there is some willingness to occasionally criticize the excesses of postmodernism and identity politics, that is as far as it goes, and sacred cow concepts like mass immigration, Me Too and Black Lives Matter are not criticized, whether out of principle or an unwillingness to step on the wrong toes. Either way, it's problematic.

The Alternative Left must recognize and push the notion that SJW regressive leftism does not operate independently of corporate and state power. The two intersect, if I may borrow the term. Postmodern identity politics requires corporations strong enough to fire and blacklist people for race and gender based thought crimes in order to become as ascendant as it has been in Silicon Valley and elsewhere. This naturally entails corporations that are also strong enough to fire employees who are trying to unionize or blow the whistle on some form of abuse or another.

Conversely, trumped up charges of bigotry, harassment and hate speech have become powerful and useful pretenses for big business and big government to censor, disgrace and blacklist people they do not like, usually because they threaten corporate and state power and are thus often to the left politically.  Corporate power will dangle the prospect of silencing an Alex Jones or a Richard Spencer in front of the left, to entice progressives into what is, when considered, a Faustian bargain. The satisfaction to be gained by the loss of an ignorant or repugnant voice is not worth the power we morally accede to big business and national security government whenever we applaud such censorship. To judge by the progressive reaction to the silencing of Alex Jones, this is a fact that too few progressives today seem to get.

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