Matt Taibbi gets it: Today's speech-squelching authoritarians

I remember when we had all these precious ideals in America. It wasn’t that long ago. Maybe it was curtailed, somewhat, in the second term of Obama administration. That’s when I began to worry about it and write about it often.

As a kid, I took it for granted.

As a citizen, I believed in it. I never doubted it as a working journalist. That began to change a few years ago.

When I noticed things had fundamentally gone off the rails I got scared; my confident demeanor shifted ever so slightly. In 2018, I believe it got to me. I could think of scarcely anything else to write about. It was about either Christianity or the menace of the deteriorating condition of the nation. A series of strokes followed, in 2018 and 2019.

Even the joy I took in my faith wasn’t enough to keep me on an even keel.

Journalist Matt Taibbi is much younger than I. But I look up to him now. He’s given me some hope for the future of the free press.

“Isn’t that a beautiful phrase, a redress of grievances?” he writes. “Great, memorable language. Like a lot of Americans, I know the First Amendment by heart. I’ve recited it to myself enough to know it doesn’t say the government gives me the right to speech, assembly, a free press. It says I have those things, already. As a person, as a citizen.”

He continues with the thought.

“This is a very American thing, the idea that rights aren’t conferred, but a part of us, like our livers, and you can’t take them away without destroying who we are. That’s why in other contexts you’ll hear some of us say things like, ‘I’ll give you this gun when you pry it from my cold dead hands!’ Some people roll their eyes and think that sounds crazy, but we know that guy actually means it, and to a lot of us it makes sense. We’re touchy about rights, especially about the first ones: speech, assembly, religion, the free press.”

This was the essence of Taibbi’s recent address in London, along with appearances by Russell Brand, Michael Shellenberger and Stella Assange in which he segued in and around his experience with Twitter.

“I entered that story lugging old-fashioned, legalistic, American views about rights, hoping to answer maybe one or two questions,” he commented. “Had the FBI, for instance, ever told the company what to do in a key speech episode? If so, that would be a First Amendment violation. Big stuff! But after looking at thousands of emails and Slack chats, I first started to get a headache, then became confused. I realized the old-school Enlightenment-era protections I grew up revering were designed to counter authoritarianism as people understood the concept hundreds of years ago, back in the days of tri-cornered hats and streets lined with horse manure.

“What Michael [Shellenberger] and I were looking at was something new, an internet-age approach to political control that uses brute digital force to alter reality itself,” Taibbi explained. “We certainly saw plenty of examples of censorship and de-platforming and government collaboration in those efforts. However, it’s clear that the idea behind the sweeping system of digital surveillance combined with thousands or even millions of subtle rewards and punishments built into the online experience, is to condition people to censor themselves.”

He continued: “In fact, after enough time online, users will lose both the knowledge and the vocabulary they would need to even have politically dangerous thoughts. What Michael calls the Censorship-Industrial Complex is really just the institutionalization of orthodoxy, a vast, organized effort to narrow our intellectual horizons.”

Taibbi mentioned George Orwell, who predicted so much of what we’ve been seeing.

“One of the big themes of ‘1984’ was the reduction of everything to simple binaries,” he said. “He described a world where ‘all ambiguities and shades of meaning had been purged,’ where it wasn’t really necessary to have words for both ‘warm’ and ‘cold,’ since as he put it, ‘every word in the language – could be negatived by adding the affix un-.'”

It’s true.

“A political movement has long been afoot in America and other places to reduce every political question to simple binaries. As Russell [Brand] knows, current political thought doesn’t like the idea that there can be left-neoliberalism over here, and right-Trumpism over here, and then also all sorts of people who are neither – in between, on the peripheries, wherever. They prefer to look at it as, ‘Over here are people who are conscientious and believe in science and fairness and democracy and puppies, and then everyone else is a right-winger.’ This is how you get people with straight faces calling Russell Brand a right-winger.”

He mentioned the “Virality Project, which was a cross-platform, information-sharing program led by Stanford University through which companies like Google, Twitter and Facebook shared information about COVID-19.

“They compared notes on how to censor or de-amplify certain content. The ostensible mission made sense, at least on the surface: it was to combat ‘misinformation’ about the pandemic, and to encourage people to get vaccinated. When we read the communications to and from Stanford, we found shocking passages. One suggested to Twitter that it should consider as ‘standard misinformation on your platform … stories of true vaccine side effects … true posts which could fuel hesitancy’ as well as ‘worrisome jokes’ or posts about things like ‘natural immunity’ or ‘vaccinated individuals contracting COVID-19 anyway.'”

He says, “This is straight out of Orwell.”

“Instead of having ‘ambiguities’ and ‘shades of meaning’ on COVID-19, they reduced everything to a binary: vax and anti-vax.”

This is how they punished speech.

This is always how they punish speech.

How long must we endure it?

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