Last week, Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg came under fire for saying he would not automatically censor Holocaust deniers from Facebook.
Mark Zuckerberg is not expressing sympathy with Holocaust deniers when he says he won’t automatically remove them from the Facebook news feed. His convoluted way of saying so may have missed the mark, but defending the right of people to post controversial or objectionable ideas on a free social media service should be a no-brainer. It’s a sad sign that anyone in America today should have to “walk back” any comment that defends the right of free expression.
Facebook has the right to censor content, as it’s a media platform that can operate by whatever standards it deems fit. And indeed it has censored content, putting dollars before principles and obediently obeyed repressive laws overseas in order to gain traction outside the U.S. It follows speech codes set by the Chinese government and governments in Europe that would never pass muster in the U.S. if they were applied by a government agency.
But the demands that Facebook censor content show the diminished respect for the concept of free speech and expression. Facebook enables users to block content they find objectionable and even block other users from their news feed if they are not to your liking. That people clamor for Facebook to go further and eliminate whole blocks of content simply because many people object flies in the face of what we Americans embrace as a concept of free expression.
Free speech is an end unto itself, it is a moral absolute. Freedom of expression is a basic human right that universal and inviolate. It is enshrined in the First Amendment of the U.S. Bill of Rights as well as the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Article 19).
Social media is not obligated to the same concepts of free expression that are guaranteed human rights. When you sign up for Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or whatever comes next, you are agreeing to terms of conditions that enable the service provider to regulate how they wish. But our sense of fair play in allowing free expression in these realms is an important one.
Americans have rightfully embraced the saying that is often attributed to Voltaire (though it actually comes from biographer Evelyn Beatrice Hall who summarized his idea), “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”
And to stand up for free speech is to undoubtedly join questionable company. You’re going to be standing up for Klansmen, pornographers, Holocaust deniers, pedophiles, and religious extremists. You will defend the rights of people who want to see you diminished, or maybe even dead. Sadly, the distinction of supporting someone’s right to say something as opposed to supporting what they say is being stripped away. Even long-standing organizations that have famously jumped to the defense of free speech—specifically the once-reliable A.C.L.U.—are now hedging and making exceptions in the toxic partisan atmosphere of our contemporary era.
Much of the speculation today surrounding the ascent of alternative right elements in our national politics is whether or not we are heading down the slippery slope to a fascist state. If the American far right is excelling in bringing us closer to fascism, its greatest victory so far has been in getting its opposition to embrace fascist elements wholesale while waving the flag of anti-fascist virtue. Every “punch a Nazi” post you see on social media, every embrace of the very concept of “hate speech” is a steep step down that terrible slippery slope.
Please remember: there is a reason that fascists are rightly reviled, it’s because they do things such as… restricting freedom of speech under the guise of protecting the populace from harmful ideas, advocating violence against those they disagree with, or claiming some higher moral right to speech than others. “That’s not free speech, that’s hate speech,” is among the most fascistic mantras in common use today.
Let’s all sides agree to let others have their say. You don’t have to listen or agree, but recognize that free speech is a human right that no one should be able to infringe. Defending the right of someone to express their ideas is not the equivalent of endorsing those ideas: teach that in schools and put up ads around town about it.
There can be no equivocation. There is no other speech but free speech. People have died for it in America and around the world. Don’t accept any substitutes.
Last week, a mob descended on New York University and effectively cut short a talk by Gavin McInnes, an author and commentator who was a co-founder of VICE. The day before, rioters caused a talk by Breitbart editor Milo Yiannopoulos at the University of California at Berkeley to be canceled.
Around the same time, a series of photos made the rounds of social media showing subway riders getting together to wash swastika graffiti from their subway car that some sad troll had scribbled there. It’s an example of the true New York. Some real Nazi thought they would get a rise out of someone and instead people rolled up their sleeves and did the right thing. People getting together to clean up some nasty vandalism makes New York, and America, a little bit greater.
There’s a reason Nazis are bad, and it’s not just because they sometimes graffito the subways. Nazis are awful because they believe they are entitled to step on the rights of others, to use political violence to silence their critics, and that they are self-righteous enough to sanction murder to further their ideas.
Censorship by mob violence is something we thought we had taken out of American life, and that in large, self-proclaimed “progressive” cities like Berkeley, California and New York would be treated as a sacred part of the social fabric. Indeed most New Yorkers who can read above a 12th grade level abide by the maxim often attributed to Voltaire: I disapprove of what you say, but will defend to the death your right to say it.
But many factions of the progressive left do not see the threat to free speech when street thugs, or the spoiled Trustafarian versions most likely to join the “black block,” decide to be arbiters of who gets to exercise the universal human right of free expression. To them, the speakers at Berkeley and N.Y.U. were “Nazis” who lost their human rights when they embraced the dark side of the ideological divide.
Neither of these people being touted as Nazis really are. Milo Yiannopoulos is gay and part Jewish; he would have been made into a lampshade during the Third Reich. Gavin McInnes is a libertarian whose views would have gotten him thrown in the nearest labor camp in post-1933 Deutschland as well (full disclosure: I have had articles published on McInnes’ Web site Street Carnage and once met him at a party).
What the Milo Yiannopoulos’ of the world are is a threat to the tired identity politics that has become the Gospel of a detached and sanctimonious activist left. If the “alt right” is an evil empire of straight white males that will shove everyone who voted for Hillary into a new Auschwitz, then a gay Jewish immigrant as their poster boy belies all the boogeyman hype.
The people burning things and rioting to stop Milo Yiannopoulos and Gavin McInnes from speaking are bigger fascists than any real “alt right” figure could ever dream of being.
There are real Nazis in America today. Most of them are keyboard commandos who like to dress in ridiculous uniforms. Some of them are dangerous criminals, but most couldn’t putsch their way out of their mother’s basement. These people feel emboldened, thinking that the breakdown of political orthodoxy signaled by Donald Trump’s victory means there is a market for extreme ideas. There isn’t.
New Yorkers have always reveled in their ability to get along with others despite the tribal nature of human life. If we’ve made a go of it here in New York, we figure, we’re a cut above the normal social mores that are taken for granted elsewhere. We put them aside though we know they are never completely gone. With millions of people crammed into the five boroughs like rats, we have a lot of hate for each other, but we’re pragmatic enough to get through our days frustrated but not hell-bent on murder.
“Hate speech” or “Free speech is not consequence-free speech” are calling card phrases of a dogmatic and intolerant left. This faction isn’t new but is newly. It is neither progressive nor just. When you judge them by their actions “antifa” is pretty damn “fa.”
New Yorkers aren’t fooled by self-proclaimed saviors who see a Nazi under every rock. Our city respects free speech, it is part of what makes us the most American of cities. The next time Gavin McInnes or Milo Yiannopoulos makes a public appearance in our Gotham, I plan to go see them.
New York is a city that lives on the freedom of expression. It is the place where people come to from all over the world to be free and to be themselves. There are many thousands of Muslims in New York and no one has been killed here over a cartoon.
New Yorkers were aghast that people in a civilized country like France could be massacred because they published cartoons of a religious figure. Charlie Hebdo published cartoons of lots of religious figures, it was their depiction of the prophet Mohammed that got them killed. True to form, the newspaper has vowed it will publish again.
If I were a better artist, I’d draw up some nice Mohammed cartoons of my own. But cartoonists quickly reacted with great artistic aplomb and there are now many great works of art depicting the Islamic prophet in a host of inventive poses. More power to them.
That there is any reluctance to embrace the ‘Je Suis Charlie’ movement is a troubling sign that the cowardice in the face of Islamic extremism is already firmly rooted among many in the West. Some media outlets are even declining to publish the controversial Mohammed cartoons that Charlie Hebdo published. Those editors are cowards.
Each terror attack generates more pathetic coddling of Muslims than backlash attacks against them. The bodies at the Charlie Hebdo offices weren’t cold before the Internet was littered with the usual moral scolds warning us against “intolerance.”
Intolerance is actually OK when faced with the intolerable, and murdering people for publishing cartoons is as intolerable as it gets. It is right to be intolerant of any ideology that feels justified treading on the freedoms of others. It would be wrong to paint all Muslims with such a broad brush, but not acknowledging Islam’s greater propensity for violence is being willfully ignorant. The immediate calls for “tolerance” in the face of terror cross the line from reason to submission.
There’s also a big difference between criticizing and satirizing the tenets of Islam and attacking Muslims. People who burn down mosques are attacking Muslims. Publishing a cartoon that makes fun of the prophet Mohammed is par for the course. Like it or not, Mohammed’s success in founding one of the world’s largest religions has made him a public figure and public figures are subject to ridicule regularly.
Most of my family and friends are Christians and they can take seeing Jesus ridiculed. Christians believe Jesus forgave the people who crucified Him, so posting a cartoon of Jesus giving Mohammed a reach-around has got to be forgivable.
We should have as many Charlie Hebdos as the newsstands and Internet can hold. We should saturate the market with as much blasphemous imagery as possible and let religious fanatics see their icons desecrated every day.
The idea of killing a cartoonist or a writer over satirical work is so appallingly immoral that it demands we double down on the blasphemous satire. There should be no publication in the world not running offensive Mohammed cartoons.
Islamic fundamentalists have now made it a moral imperative to insult their prophet in the most objectionable manor possible. No one should hesitate to publish a single one.
In June of 2000 I went to see Penn & Teller on stage at the Beacon Theater in New York. Being a big Penn & Teller fan, I bought tickets as soon as I could and got a really good seat for the show. When I was there, I was impressed that I was one row in front of Al Goldstein, editor of SCREW magazine and one of the people in my mind who embodied New York City better than anyone else.
Goldstein was dressed in cutoff jean shorts, hiking boots, and a red, white and blue sequined jacket. He had gorgeous woman on his arm that looked to be a 20-year-old porn star.
Years later I made a flier for the punk band I play in that featured Al with his middle finger extended, which was how he was often photographed. I emailed him a copy of the flier and he emailed me back saying it was wonderful. That made my day.
Goldstein was one of New York City’s great public personalities, one of the outspoken people who come to represent New York and its spirit. Much in the same way Ed Koch came to represent New York among the celebrated and in polite society, Al Goldstein represented the city’s gritty edge and its always sarcastic and sometimes obscene sense of humor. He was an overweight, cigar-chomping loudmouth who ranted against New York’s many annoyances as vehemently as he skewered the Philistines from both the left and the right. At the same time he never lost his sense of humor about himself.
We recently lost Al Goldstein. He died on Dec. 19 in a hospital and probably not under a pile of naked women like he would have preferred.
Growing up in New York, I would often see Goldstein on talk shows and news segments when he was often called upon to defend pornography. When I moved back to New York I was happy I could see his show Midnight Blue on cable access television. Al Goldstein was a ubiquitous advocate of enjoying sex for its own sake and being unashamed of it. He was overbearing and bombastic, but his case just made plain sense and went like this: Wanting to have sex is a very natural thing that has kept the human race going for millions of years, why be ashamed of it or think it is bad? I’m a man, why shouldn’t I enjoy looking at pictures of naked women? Pictures of vaginas in my magazine aren’t bad because vaginas aren’t bad. Fuck you if you don’t like it.
Do you enjoy looking at tits in magazines or on the Internet? Thank Al Goldstein. He had been fighting for the right to publish his magazine before it was cool. Those days are mostly behind us in America. Except for rare cases that continue to be egregious and terrifying for free speech, porn is everywhere now and the government can’t stop it. But our access to porn today is because of the efforts made by Goldstein decades ago, often at great personal risk. It’s hard to believe in these days of celebrated promiscuity that people could actually be threatened with jail for publishing naked pictures in magazines. Goldstein was one of the first to do battle for those freedoms and he did it years before more celebrated personalities like Larry Flynt.
Lawsuits and bad business decisions left him homeless and destitute. Penn Jillette, recognizing the debt Americans owe to Goldstein, often helped him financially. Later in life he did express regret for some of his excesses. He was estranged from some of his family. He admitted to his faults and realized his mistakes, but never wavered from the blunt personality that made him essential.
Al Goldstein embodied New York City not because he published pornography, but because he fought for his right to do it and lived a life that was bold and unapologetic.