America is now at the Samizdat stage.
For those not hip, Samizdat refers to the underground press in the old Soviet Union. The government had almost total control over public discourse; today, it’s private corporations. Which is worse because it has the sheen of “free market” and “private property” – which provides the basis for doltish intellectuals to defend it.
Only government can censor, they exclaim!
A privately owned newspaper, or magazine – or web site – has every right to not publish anything it prefers not to publish and for any reason it likes, without any obligation to explain why.
That is not censorship because in the first place there is no law prohibiting you from attempting to get your work/views published elsewhere and in the second because you are free to publish them yourself.
The dissidents in the old Soviet Union who published the underground press were subject to arrest for airing unapproved views.
But what if the means of publishing fall under the control of a handful of powerful entities who use their general control of the means of publishing to suppress the airing of unapproved views?
Would it not amount to the same thing?
A worse thing?
Most people instinctively rear back at the idea of government muzzling people’s freedom to speak or otherwise air their views. Especially their contrarian views.
It is a healthy instinct, for all the obvious reasons. If the government can criminalize criticism of itself then – ipso facto – government can do no wrong. At least no wrong that people are allowed to speak of, openly. In which case, the government is free to do as it pleases; the fact that no one’s (officially) complaining taken as dispositive that whatever the government is doing must be synonymous with good.
Hence the First Amendment, which was written not to grant but to elaborate the right of the people to freely speak and write – whether the government liked it or not.
The government, of course, did not like it – and almost right away.
America’s second Decider – John Adams – decided he did not like criticism of himself or the policies of his Decidership. He characterized such criticism as “seditious” and issued a fatwa to that effect.
People were caged on the basis of displeasing the Decider.
The Alien and Sedition Acts only remained in force about three years but the idea was never thoroughly put to rest. When another Decider – Abe Lincoln – decided the Southern states could not be permitted do what the 13 colonies had done (i.e., withdraw their consent to be governed by a central power they considered abusive) he made it unlawful to question his polices and had people caged and even deported when they did so – including Clement Vallandgham, a leading political figure in Ohio who had the effrontery to publicly disagree with the Decider.
Who ultimately succeeded in rescinding the consent of the governed Southern – as well as rescinding the right of those in the North to object – at least in the open – until the deed was done. Once done, of course, objecting to it amounted to crying over spilt milk and so could be indulged.
That indulgence was rescinded once more a few decades hence, when a new Decider – Woodrow Wilson – decided to jump into a war on another continent which wasn’t being won by either side and was being fought over things unrelated to anything occurring on this continent. It was decided that Germany and her allies were the apotheosis of evil and thus to speak in defense of anything German would henceforth be verboten. Germans on this continent were almost verboten as well.
There is no law forbidding a privately owned publisher from declining to publish. Nor a law requiring advertisers to support publications whose views they disagree with.
No should there ever be such a law . . .
So long as there are alternative means of publication.
And so long as all or nearly all advertising is not under the control of a handful of privately owned companies acting in concert to suppress the expression of any views they decree to be “dangerous” – without even the courtesy of defining exactly what is meant by that.
Which, for the historical record, is precisely what the second Decider – John Adams did when he issued his fatwa.
Today’s Tech Oligarch Deciders – none of them elected by anyone – are far more clever.
This has been achieved – is in the process of being achieved – not by laws but by recondite and inscrutable codes imposed by the Tech Oligarchy which effectively controls the means of expressing views – the Internet and social media. These “platforms” – as they are styled – are the modern era’s functional equivalent of the printing press, since almost nothing is actually printed anymore.
Instead, it is transmitted – over the ether, via the Internet – which is effectively our era’s public commons. Outside of that commons, free speech is becoming effectively irrelevant -because no no one’s listening (or reading).
And that commons is now effectively under the control of the Tech Oligarchy, which decides who may and not express views according to opaque internal standards which are “violated” without explanation – beyond their having been violated.
It’s more than Orwellian. It is Brave New Worldian. People aren’t caged for unorthodoxy.
The Tech Oligarchs not only control expression, they control the economics of expression because they control almost all of the advertising online. It is no longer the case that a given advertiser takes issue with a given article/viewpoint or the publisher of that article/viewpoint.
That power has been transferred to the Tech Oligarchies and made general. The individual advertisers have proxy-powered the Tech Oligarchies to blanket indict “dangerous” (but never defined) expression and pull all the advertising from that publisher at their whim.
A publisher – or an individual writer – who fell afoul of one or two or even three advertisers who objected for one reason or another to the views expressed could, in the past, find other advertisers. The publisher or writer also dealt directly with the advertisers, who directly advised the publisher exactly why they objected – whenever they did.
This was a free market – of commerce and of expression.
It had checks and balances. If newspaper “A” didn’t like your opinion piece, newspaper “B” might publish it. If you were politically conservative – or politically liberal (or even politically Libertarian) there were publications – and advertisers – who were agreeable.
No one was censored – or suppressed.
Today, anyone who transgresses the glaucomic “terms of service” of the Tech Oligarchs can be suppressed and ruined. The heretical views kept from the public by denial of access to the means of dissemination and the source of those views punished not with prison but with penury.
In the past, most advertisers would stick with a publication that was read – unless outrageously egregious – because it was profitable. But the Tech Oligarchs are willing to lose money if it gains them power – which they exercise via their near-monopoly/proxy power over advertising online, which is the lifeblood of publishing.
And not for reasons of differences of opinion merely – which they regard as egregious but never explain why (knowing how ridiculous they’d appear if they did).
Instead, the blanket indictment: “Dangerous” – and “derogatory.”
The Oligarchs have caged the system to their advantage to such a degree that one must grudgingly give them credit, for it is truly due. They took over means of publishing which they did not create – i.e., the Internet – and then succeeded in claiming it as their property while at the same time excusing themselves from any legal liability for what was published by claiming they are merely “platforms” – i.e., conduits or the means of publishing – and then began to Thought Police the publishing they deny they are engaged in.
The effrontery of it would startle Nicolae Ceaușescu – even Stalin, perhaps.
In the old Soviet Union, pre-Internet – the Samizdat press had the advantage of the same fundamental means of publishing as Pravda (the official organ of the Soviet Union’s communist government).
Both had to rely on the printed word. And on physical distribution.
The underground Samizdat could be produced in largely the same manner as Pravda and passed around as easily an issue of Pravda. The government could censor speech – but suppressing it was harder.
Today, it is easy to suppress speech – and far worse than censoring it.
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