Note: This is an unedited rush transcript. Please check any quotations against the audio recording.
Nico Perrino: Hello and welcome back to So To Speak, the free speech podcast where every other week we take an uncensored look at the world of free expression through personal stories and candid conversations. I am your host, Nico Perrino, and today we’re joined by Charles C.W. Cooke. Charles is the editor of NationalReview.com and, I’m assuming, the Englishman representative in the popular National Review podcast, Mad Dogs and Englishmen, which he co-hosts with Kevin Williamson who’s been on the show before – I believe last year – to talk about his book. Charles, welcome onto the show.
Charles Cook: Thank you so much for having me.
Nico: So, there are a couple of things I wanna cover with you. I wanna cover social media companies, I wanna talk about Section 230, I wanna talk about the recent assassination in France of the school teacher who dared to teach his students about the Mohammed Cartoon Controversy from the mid-aughts. But I wanna begin by asking you about something that happened in 2018 that really first put you on my radar as a thinker on issues pertaining to free expression which was a Kenyan College panel you participated in at Kenyan Colleges in Ohio. You remember that panel?
Charles: I do. I do.
Nico: It was quite a hot event because you were there with Ulrich Baer, who’s an NYU professor and in the year before wrote an op-ed that went kind of viral in the New York Times called What Snowflakes Get Right About Free Speech. And then, on the other side of you on the panel was Stephanie Freiberg who’s the Diversity and Social Transformation Professor at the University of Michigan, and they were kind of making the argument for hate speech laws, and Ulrich Baer, in particular, was making the argument that campuses should be able to shut down speakers who dispute the inherent humanity of some people. And you were getting it from all sides. What do you make of Ulrich Baer’s argument there? That there are certain speakers who deny the inherent humanity of some people? And he said during the conversation that there was many instances of this.
Charles: Well, the first thing to note is that it was peculiar, I think, that in a free speech debate on a college campus I was outnumbered by academics who were taking the broadly anti-free speech position.
Charles: That’s worth commenting on. I was not supposed to take part in that debate. The person who was supposed to play my role was John McWhorter, which we’ll come back to.
Nico: Yeah, and he’s on our board of directors here at Fire, actually.
Charles: Right. And I think it matters that it was him given the way the debate went. But, it was peculiar to me that if you were going to have an odd number of people – there were three of us – that the balance would be against speech. You would expect it to be the other way around. And you would expect that because we have in our society certain institutions that not only lend themselves to free expression but are supposedly set up for no other purpose. And the university is one of them. And oddly enough, it’s these institutions recently that have become the most hostile to free speech. If you look around the United States, you will see this upside-down arrangement where the two primary venues for free expression and inquiry, the University and the Newspaper, have become more hostile toward it than say, corporations or little platoon organizations, or what you will. And that’s strange and I thought that that was made evident at the debate at Kenyan. What I think about the specific question you asked is that really, the notion that we need broad restrictions on free speech because somebody might say something that denies the humanity of another speaker is per-say ridiculous. I don’t think that that should be a line legally or culturally. But it’s also an excuse because you can extend it almost infinitely.
And the reason I mention John McWhorter is he’s not white. The three of us on that panel were. And the excuse that kept being made was that, well, we need to have all sorts of restrictions whether formal or otherwise to look after non-white people. But had I not been there, the case against that would’ve been made by the only non-white person on the panel. Now, I said this at the end, I can’t think of a more patronizing, condescending, unequal, and ill-liberal standard than to propose that there are some people in society who need special treatment, who can’t keep up in debate, who can’t engage in debate at the same level as everyone else because of their immutable characteristics. That in a nutshell is everything I would stand against as an individual and as a writer. And I think that what we have seen is not only the acceptance of that idea per-say but its extension into all realms.
And so, now if you engage in the debate over the metaphysical nature of a transgender person, you are denying their humanity. If you comment on the founding of the United States, whether it was virtuous or sinful, you are denying the humanity of our ancestors. And really, this is a slippery slope that will lead to less re-inquiry and less flourishing on university campuses and elsewhere.
Nico: Well, the patronizing nature of the argument – in the mid-aughts, we at Fire talked often about what we called the strong student model. The idea that students are not too weak to live with freedom. You don’t need this benevolent autocrat sitting in the university administration office writing policies about what can and can’t be said on campus because they were afraid of the hurt feelings that the students might get. And students were our best constituency for open expression and dialogue on campus. But that started to change around 2014.
Nico: That’s when you started to see the rise in language surrounding macroaggressions, trigger warnings; this kind of trauma-informed dialogue – almost a medicalization of censorship. So, is it still true that students, or anyone else for that matter, are strong enough to live with freedom? Or have they started to internalize the arguments that those in the ivory tower if you wanna say, have been making about what words can do to people’s psyche?
Charles: Well, I think there’s two answers to that. The first is yes, some have. And unfortunately, it only takes a few to effect change on campus that affects everyone.
Nico: Well how do you push back on that? ‘Cause I go to campuses and I take questions from audiences and students and they make these arguments to me. And how do you tell someone that this is just kind of the cost of freedom? That sometimes you’re gonna be offended?
Charles: Well, I think that brings me to the second point there, which is that it’s actually perverse. There’s a tension, isn’t there, because, on the one hand, you have the case for censorship which relies upon the idea that differing levels of power require the Ulrich Baers of the world to intervene benevolently and protect the weak. And you also have the practical side which is that students, if they can convince the faculty and administrative bodies to back them with force, are actually not weak.
Charles: This is the perversity of it. So, what you’re telling me is X person is marginalized and weak and needs our protection, but that person is also powerful enough to command the university to silence everyone else. I just don’t think that stands up. I think what that shows us is that actually, the minority – and I believe it is a minority on campus that are ruining it for everyone else – are the powerful people. They’re the people who have worked out how to wield the censor’s pen, as you say, by medicalizing the question. By talking about safety and so on. And it has to be acknowledged by doing so in a way that aligns with the prejudices and preferences of the faculty because this doesn’t work the other way around, right? There is no one on a college campus who’s a huge fan of Ben Shapiro who manages to get the faculty to disinvite Joy Reed. It’s always the other way around. And so, you have a powerful minority allying itself with the power structure and the prevailing ideology and orthodoxy on campus and claiming that it needs to do so because it is powerless. It’s pathetic.
Nico: Well, that’s the charade of it all, right? So, you have groups of students on campus, many of whom are the ones calling for censorship, also at the same time saying that they are an oppressed group on campus. Saying that the administration is oppressing them in one way or another but at the same time calling for speech codes that would then give that very same administration the power to censor. So, it’s either that they are just tactically short-sighted, or B) they actually don’t believe that the administration isn’t on their side. They actually think it’s on their side and therefore wanna give them the power; short-sighted though that may be because we all know that everyone is mortal and people shift careers and change jobs and those administrators might not always be there. Though I doubt in a college environment you’d get administrators with dramatically different beliefs. But in this Kenyan College panel – and I wasn’t there – I actually hear about it because at the end of the panel, you all took questions and the first question came from Steven Pinker.
Charles: That’s right.
Nico: Of course, the author of Enlightenment Now, Better Angels of Our Nature, an advisory council member here at Fire is over at Harvard and he asked Ulrich Baer, “What speakers do you have in mind when you say that campuses should ban those who deny the inherent humanity of some people?” And Ulrich Baer – and it was in, well, Aaron our editor if he could cut some of this in I’d appreciate it – struggled for minutes to deflect the question. He refused to name a single speaker who would fall under this description of denying the inherent humanity of people. And Pinker kept pressing him on it and at the end, he just said, “I don’t want to give them the platform.” Which I think says a lot about the argument because if you’re making this argument and you’re not providing examples of who would fall within the argument, the argument is unfalsifiable. You’ve built yourself almost a perfect rhetorical fortress.
Nico: Whereby you can claim the moral high ground without giving anyone the data points that they would need in order to falsify it. And maybe the scientific method is no longer en vogue with these people, but that’s usually how we analyze a hypothesis. So, it was one of the most extraordinary and I think effective in a Socratic way demonstrations of the facile arguments surrounding some of the censorship. And I should note to our listeners I’ve invited Ulrich Baer on the podcast numerous times, and he’s been nice and responsive, but every time he’s repeatedly told me that he himself doesn’t have time, but maybe after this, I’ll invite him on. Stephanie Freiburg, who was on your left on this panel, accused you actually Charles of not living in the real world. That your arguments morally for free expression and legally for the first amendment were an ivory tower ideology. What’d you make of that?
Charles: Well, I think the opposite is true. The genius of the American constitutional order is that it accepts and presumes human beings as they are. It is not a utopian constitutional model and the classically liberal values that it sets in aspect are predicated upon the idea that men are ambitious, that they can be corrupted, and that ultimately they were lacked in their self-interest. And it tries to set those ambitious men against one another so that ambition counteracts ambitionists, the famous phrase has it. One of the classically liberal values that is set in aspect in that constitutional document is the freedom of speech. There’s a reason for that and that reason is that all of us – good and bad – try to gain an advantage. In the market, in our careers, in love, in sports, and clearly what we have seen in the last few years is that people who either cannot or don’t want to argue, don’t want to engage with debate, have seen a way of gaining an advantage and shutting up the people who are damaging or irritating to their cause.
We just talked about it. You get the administrators on your side and you have the person you don’t like silenced or fired or marginalized. The both legal and extralegal conception of free speech as it’s traditionally existed in the United States is a great antidote to that. Essentially it says, “no, you cannot recruit the State of Florida to your side. You cannot recruit the Federal Government to your side. You cannot recruit Harvard to your side. You want to argue, fine. But you must extend the same privileges that you request to everybody else. I think the idea that it is that rather than the opposite that is naive is bizarre. And I asked this at that debate, repeatedly, of Ulrich Baer and Stephanie Freiburg: Who in American history on the margins do you think would agree with the idea that censorship helps the downtrodden? There’s just no evidence for that proposition.
Go back to the early republic. What do you see? You see laws banning those proselytizing against slavery. You see gag acts in the House of Representatives, you see Federal rules prohibiting the use of the mail – postal service – by abolitionists. In the confederacy, one of the first things that the new country did was to make arguments against slavery illegal. The Jim Crowe South did similar things. Frederick Douglass famously explains that what he needs is free speech and to be left alone, not appeals to public safety, which is of course one way that they used to shut down his meetings. Go back to the early 19th Century when the Supreme Court was particularly bad on the question of First Amendment Jurisprudence and there was a culture of censorship.
Who was it who suffered when the Supreme Court ruled that you can’t shout “fire” in a crowded theatre? Which most people don’t know is not actually about fires or theatres. It’s an analogy for the First World War in the course of justifying the imprisonment of a Jewish non-English speaking immigrant who was handing out leaflets in Yiddish arguing against the draft. They put him in jail. Woodrow Wilson imprisoned his own presidential election opponent. The socialist Eugene Debs. On, and on, and on going into the Civil Rights movement in the ’50s and the ’60s and you will see that in the real world, in real American history, touching real American lives, it’s not the people who have stood up and said, “No. Censorship is wrong and it benefits the powerful who are living in an ivory tower. Or, who are watching this unfold through rose-tinted glasses, it’s the censors who believe they can make the world better or that they are intervening for everyone’s good.” So, I think Stephanie Freiburg is absolutely wrong on this but not just wrong, I think she’s advancing the opposite case than the one that must prevail.
Nico: Well, that’s the primary argument of former ACLU Executive Director Ira Glasser – I just made a documentary about him called Mighty Ira – and his argument essentially is there is no social justice movement in American history that hasn’t relied for its very success on freedom of expression or first amendment protections. And it was John Lewis who famously said that the Civil Rights movement without protections for free speech would have been a bird without wings.
Nico: And Ira would go to college campuses in the 1980s when there was that last big wave for calls for hate speech codes and he would tell students, he said, “The first amendment and free speech protections are an insurance policy. Why would you cash in that? Or, why would you get rid of that insurance policy?” And he likes to use a poison gas metaphor, he says, “Censorship might look nice or seem like a good tactic when the wind is in your favor, but the wind has a way of shifting directions.” And this whole argument that you’re not living in the real world, Charles, I mean, Steven Pinker’s question of Ulrich Baer proved that the other side isn’t living in the real world. They can’t even give you an example.
Nico: That would justify their moral theories.
Charles: I must say it was lovely, ‘cause during the debate, I wasn’t sure what the audience was thinking. People were quiet and respectful, you didn’t have interruptions or heckling or shaking of heads. People sat and stared. And obviously, I was outnumbered. And I finished after the hour’s debate and I thought, well, I wonder how that went? How that came across? And then, the first person who spoke up was Steven Pinker and I thought, well, it must have gone okay then.
Nico: Yeah. So, you’re around the same age as me, Charles, and when I was in college, I went to Indiana University. These sorts of debates weren’t really top of mind. You didn’t see the same sort of trends that we see now. I probably graduated right before they started to become en vogue. You were at Oxford in a famous debating union there. What was your experience there? Were these issues kind of in the zeitgeist at the time?
Charles: No. No, but there was a clear dividing line. When I first went off to Oxford in 2004, I found it to be the most wonderful, open-minded place both socially and in my tutorials. I never once had anyone try to silence me. I never once had anyone say they were unsafe or marginalized. It was a place where debate flowed freely in the bars, in the classroom, and of course at the Oxford Union Debating Society, which I participated in. It was the model of what a university should be and throughout my time there, I saw exactly that. But I didn’t leave the city of Oxford when I graduated, I stayed there for four years. And when you leave Oxford, you can remain a member of the Oxford Union as long as you pay your annual dues. It’s open to alumni. So, I used to go – not just to see the debates, but also because they have fascinating speakers, right? I mean, to put this into context, we had Hans Blix come and speak to us during the debate over Iraq.
Nico: And you’ll fly people in from other countries.
Nico: I know that because my boss Greg Lukianoff was invited out there. And I thought, wow, you must have a good deal of money if you can bring someone from the United States in just for a debate.
Charles: Right. Yeah, so they have great speakers and great debate and I had some friends who were still there and I used to go down. Now, the year after I had left, the committee decided that they would invite David Irving – well, I say historian. Once he was a historian, he’s now a propagandist and a holocaust denier – and Nick Griffin, who you may not have heard of. He’s a very silly man who is the head of the British National party which is a – well, sort of Ozwalt Mosely type fascist organization.
Nico: Yeah, I don’t know Nick Griffin, but I know David Irving quite well because they made a movie about him and his defamation fight with Deborah Lipstadt, which was fairly good.
Charles: Right. Yeah, yeah it was good. It was good.
Nico: Denial, I think it’s called. We interviewed Deborah Lipstadt on the podcast years ago.
Charles: Yeah, it’s Denial. It’s a good one to read on a plane. But the point is, they decided they would invite these two, but they would also have other debaters and they would debate fascism, essentially. Now, the reaction to this surprised me given my experience at Oxford. It became national news and they had to cancel it and one day, I was walking through the center of Oxford, New Oxford Union, and in the street which leads to the gate there were a bunch of balaclava-wearing people with big signs saying “No free speech for fascists” and they were blocking the entrance to the Oxford Union.
Nico: Ironic, right?
Charles: Yeah. And I thought, you know, I have no time whatsoever for Nick Griffin or David Irving, but this is ironic and this is very sad given that this is an institution in Oxford that has been described as the last bastion of free speech in the world. And it was set up because it was outside of the clutches of government censorship in Britain in the 19th century. And what struck me more than the guys in balaclavas, although it was moderately alarming. I mean, if you’d said to me well, there’s this debate over fascism gonna happen. We’re a bit worried about the people who might show up. And you said, they will be in balaclavas, I would’ve assumed that they would be the fascists, not the so-called anti-fascists.
But what really struck me about this was that all of the arguments which sadly prevailed against this invitation seemed to assume that everyone who attended Oxford and was a member of the Oxford Union was a moron. I mean, what, I still ask, what did they think was gonna happen? Did they think that the 450 people in that debating chamber watching this debate were going to listen for 45 minutes, forget everything they already thought, had learned, knew – believed, and goose-step out? The idea that this elite university full of really, really interesting and intelligent people – people who are studying all sorts of different things; not just history and politics and English, but medicine, materials, rare diseases, astronomy – the idea that they could not cope with this intellectual pigmy, Nick Griffin, and this strange man, David Irving, in a debate I thought was deeply, deeply sad.
And that was my first introduction to this; to everything we’re talking about, and the problem that Fire addresses. And it was poignant, I have to say.
Nico: What do you make of the differing, if you can call them that, cultures surrounding this issue in the United States and England? Brendan O’Neal over at Spiked likes to say that he’d prefer – I don’t know if he’d say he’d prefer, but he says they’re some sort of value to not having a First Amendment type constitutional protection for freedom of speech in England because it requires then to continually make the argument in a way that some Americans don’t because they fall back on the First Amendment. You say, well, why is free speech important in America? And someone will say because the First Amendment protects it, but that’s a circular argument. Do you think Brendan’s wrong?
Nico: Or, is he partially right, partially wrong?
Charles: Well, he’s perhaps partially right and partially wrong. He’s certainly right in that having a protection such as the First Amendment, which allows at least in the current era, you to be bailed out by judges, does perhaps breed a certain complacency.
Nico: And I caught myself there ‘cause I do think he says there’s a value to it, but he’s also been the victim of not having a First Amendment because Spiked was a Marxist, like a [inaudible 00:27:40] Magazine – what was it called, I forget? And then, it lost a defamation case way back in the early 2000s or late ’90s that required it to transform into what is now Spiked. A case that never would have happened in the United States because of its First Amendment protections and the high standard that must be met in defamation cases.
Nico: Especially regarding publications and public figures.
Charles: Well, yeah. I’d much rather have it though for a couple of reasons. The first one is I do think to some extent the causation flows the other way. James Madison when he introduced the bill of rights in the post-convention period in congress, the first congress, he said two things. One, that none of the protections that would be included were controversial, in his estimation, and the second was that he hoped that by putting down in words the importance of certain liberties that they would be cherished in the national bosom. That they would re-enforce the existing enthusiasm for the right to jury trial, free speech, Second Amendment, and so on. I do think that that helps. I think it helps to foster a traditionalism around liberties that is helpful. But the other reason that I think it helps is that when you do get a swing in public opinion, you don’t lose as much ground as you do in Britain. I mean, in Britain, parliament is sovereign. It could do whatever it likes. If it wanted to, it could decide to kill by a Bill of Attainder, my family.
It wouldn’t because the British are generally decent people, but as we have seen whether the question is infringements of civil liberties as a result of terrorism, gun control, restrictions on jury trials, if there is a sufficient public sentiment, parliament will act. And it’s very difficult to claw back liberties once lost. The point of the Bill of Rights is that unless you have such an overwhelming shift in sentiment as to warrant a repeal of one of its provisions, which takes huge numbers of people, states, members of congress, and so on, you’re gonna keep most of your liberties intact even if you’re facing down a mob. And what that does it is allows you a little breathing room to fight another day. I –
Nico: Yeah. It’s an anti-majoritarian document, the Bill of Rights.
Charles: Well, yeah.
Nico: It’s mean to protect minorities.
Charles: Right, right. But as well as that, what it does is it means that you’re not every time fighting on the back foot because you probably have prevailed even during the whoosh of emotion. And I think in politics that that is very, very valuable. I mean, if you look at the way that progressives tend to talk, they will get one thing done and then they’ll say, well, we already do this-or-that, and slowly but surely we already do everything that they want. And I think the First Amendment prevents that. Which allows the Brendan O’Neals of the world to go out there and argue from a position of strength.
Nico: You know, another Oxford man who was a strong advocate of freedom of expression, of course, was Christopher Hitchens. I wanted to get your side. I don’t think I’ve ever heard you talk about Christopher Hitchens. I was just curious – and it doesn’t necessarily need to be in the context of freedom of expression – just what you think of him and his cause over the years? Of him personally?
Charles: Well, I think he was a wonderful writer and debater. Wildly entertaining.
Nico: Yeah. I should say he’s one of my personal – I’ve got a poster of him here in my office and his book, Letters To A Young Contrarian is probably one of my favorite polemical works ever written. And he probably had, I think, the best speech in support of free expression principles that I’ve ever seen given. It was 20 minutes. It was given in Canada. I forget when.
Nico: I’ll link it in the show notes. But you know, the arguments you make Charles kind of remind me some of the arguments he makes which is kind of why I wanted to ask you about him. Also because you’re both British.
Charles: Well, I suppose, yeah, we’re both exiles who have adopted the American model. I think he was a wonderful writer, I think he was a wonderful debate. You say it doesn’t necessarily have to be within the free speech context, but that is where he was the most valuable in my view because it’s the starting point. And all of the various questions that we debate are subordinated to our ability to debate them. Now, I’m sure I disagree with Christopher Hitchens on a huge number of questions but if you can’t confirm with your sparring partner that they are happy for you to make your case, then you really don’t have a debate. And he was emphatically willing to do so and I think perhaps his greatest contribution to this area was his belligerence. By which I mean, he says during that speech that you referenced in Canada – I won’t say the exact words. It’s a family podcast. – but he essentially says at the end that one person who has a problem with whatever he wants at any point can go to hell.
Nico: Yeah. He says, “I think you can take a number, get in line, and kiss my ass.”
Charles: Okay, well, you said it. Not me.
Nico: Well, we said at the top of the show this is an uncensored podcast, so we can go there.
Nico: But yeah.
Charles: But I think that against some of the behavior that we were talking about at the beginning of the show, that sort of unapologetic and unyielding approach is necessary because the people who are trying to clamp down on free expression both legally and culturally they’re not polite about it. They’re not retiring in their efforts. They, in fact, say the most absurd things with the most supreme confidence and it’s going to take people who stand up and say, no. I’m aware I’m digressing here a little bit, but this is – for what it’s worth – my view of how we fight cancel culture. It’s difficult for most people. It’s easier for public figures. And so, public figures have to lead the way. They have to behave in the way J.K. Rowling behaves. Yeah, it’s easier for her than it is a guy who works at KFC. She’s worth billions of dollars, she can’t really be canceled in any meaningful way, so she needs to lead this and she is. It takes the Christopher Hitchens of the world and the Ben Shapiros of the world just to say no. And the reason that it’s important is that if you watch the way that these fights tend to play out, once someone says no, there’s really not much left. The censors among us are used to winning.
Charles: They’re used to getting their own way. There’s never a second stage. They say, “I’m offended. You should apologize. You should be quiet. You should be fired. You should retract that.” And far too often, people, corporations, universities say, “Oh, okay. I will.” But you know, if you say, “Absolutely not. Go to hell.”
Then what are they left with? The same request, but you need to – no. I’m not doing it. And they move on to the next person.
Nico: And there’s actually studies that demonstrate that and I don’t remember where it was published off the top of my head, but there was a study as to whether apologies in these sorts of circumstances kind of mobilize the opposition or disperse the opposition – which is what the apology is made to effectively do which is defang them, but it actually, apologies in some context have a way of mobilizing the opposition and making their cause even more fervent.
Charles: Yeah. You know, I –
Nico: And I think Donald Trump has kind of demonstrated that in a certain context. The refusal to apologize kind of leaves his opponents saying, well, what now?
Charles: Right, right. And of course, sometimes we all do things that require us to apologize.
Nico: No, of course. And I’m not saying the tactic question is different from the moral question, of course.
Nico: But there is something to be said for the tactical question, especially when the only other reason to give the apology is to put yourself on the good graces of those who are calling for you to apologize – not because you actually think you morally did something wrong.
Charles: Yes. You know, another great thing about Hitchens was that his argument was in favor of free speech per se, and you can level all sorts of arguments in favor of free speech and I believe all of them. I think that if we were to host a debate on free speech: is it good or bad? And it was substantive, I think that the advocates of free speech would win. But I also think that I have an inalienable right to it, irrespective of whether I can prove to anybody else.
Nico: Yeah, that’s a personal autonomy argument, yeah.
Charles: Yeah. And the reason I think that matters is that I actually don’t really believe that offense is important. I mean, I forget his name, but there was a guy recently, African American guy, I think he had a show talking about sports. Anyway, he got canned because he said some insane things about black people being superior to white people. I personally, I could not stop watching this. It was so insane.
Nico: I haven’t heard of this.
Charles: I think his name was Nick? Anyway, he was talking with his co-host about how people who have melanin are chosen by God and those who don’t are evil and flawed and depressed, and inferior. Now, this is nuts, right? This is just the other way around to traditional white supremacy. But I’m still a little confused as to who actually was upset by this? I mean, what did it actually do? I think the guy’s wrong, I don’t’ know how he came to this view, I don’t know what he’s been reading that lead him to advance it with such abandon and such confidence, and I’m sure that somewhere lurking in the background there is Louis Farrakhan. But so what? So what? I mean, if that’s what he believes if that’s what he wants to talk about, okay. And the argument that I was presented with when I’ve said this is, “Ah, but he really offended a lot of people.”
But why? I mean, why does it matter? It’s – this odd crutch that we’ve adopted as a culture that, well I was really offended by it. Okay. Well, grow up then. Go listen to someone else. And I like the fact that Hitchens was prepared to defend the crazies, people who are unpopular, people who are flat out wrong, even people who were pernicious. People whose cultural influence is arguably negative. Rather than just to say, which is important, look at all of the good things that free speech brings us. Look on average how it helps the truth come out. The marginalized speak up. That is all extremely important; it’s imperative. But you know it also just matters that we don’t punish weirdos and eccentrics, and people who are wrong for their opinions.
Nico: Well, that’s Ulrich Baer will make the argument that we need to censor in order to defend the inherent humanity of some people. Well, what about the inherent humanity of those who believe something?
Nico: I think, at the core of what it means to be human is to look at the world, assess the world, develop beliefs about the world, and share those beliefs with others. The efforts to censor is really to cut out the core of what makes us human. If we can’t share our experiences, are we really human anymore? So, this denying humanity argument is facile in so far as it itself denies the humanity of those who wish to be who they are and speak their mind. And I agree with you. Hitchens – and it’s become a cliché to say we miss Hitchens and we’d love to see what he has to say about the current moment. But we were talking about David Irving before and you were talking about how Hitchens was belligerent in his defense and refused to apologize. He did no throat clearing.
When David Irving, when there was discussions of censoring his books about Naziism, he went out and defended David Irving’s right to publish those books, the right to speak out. And he didn’t – at least I can’t recall him – begin his defense with a list as it has become fashionable to do of all the bad things about David Irving. And you actually wrote an article, Free Speech Without Apologies, that more clearly stated that you were no longer doing this. You wrote, “Up until now I have included in all my defenses of free speech a preamble in which I have explained what I personally thought of the person I was defending.” And then, this is in the context of the Pamela Geller Draw Me Muhammed Cartoon Contest where people I think attempted to assassinate her and those who participated, you know? You said, “Henceforth I shall do no such thing. Instead, I shall briefly establish that my personal views about a person’s character or cause cannot possibly matter one wit in such a case and then I shall move on to the only important question at hand, which is whether we are to live as free men at liberty to speak as we wish or whether we are to self-sensor in the hope that the crocodiles will spare us.”
And I think that’s exactly right. And Christopher Hitchens did exactly this during the Salman Rushdie affair in the late ’80s, early ’90s. I believe it was ’89, ’90. He refused to apologize at a time when Western countries were themselves apologizing for their free expression values. And this is, you know, we haven’t even gotten any of the stuff that I brought you on the podcast to discuss, but this is a good Segway into what happened in France, I believe in October, surrounding Samuel Paty, who was beheaded in a class on freedom of expression after he showed a student Charlie Hebdo’s 2012 cartoons depicting the Islamic prophet Muhammed. Those cartoons, of course, resulting in the massacre of a large portion of Charlie Hebdo’s staff.
And I’m actually, and I’d like to get your perspective on this, Charlie, and I read somewhere that you’re a Francophile, so you might have an interesting perspective, it seems as though Macron and the French government are not demonstrating the tepid response that you saw around the Rushdie affair that you saw around the Jyllands-Posten, affair in the mid-aughts. It seems like they’re making a stronger claim to values now surrounding this incident than has been seen around similar incidents in the past. Do you see that as well?
Charles: Yeah. I think a couple of things have happened in France. The first is they’ve had so many attacks in the last few years that the –
Nico: Yeah. You almost lose them because there have been so many. You forget about them.
Charles: Exactly. The ability to cast them as marginal is now limited. Part of it is related to “laïcité” which is the separation of church and state but in a very different way than that’s understood in Anglo-American nations. The French have a cultural preference for their being no outward display of religious belief in public. We shouldn’t get bogged down in American First Amendment Juris Prudence, but the American separation is largely intended to protect religion rather than the state. Whatever progressive judges might wish it meant. And as such, there is a suspicion, I think in France of the tension as they see it between Islam and French citizenship that you might not get in other countries.
But then there is the need for Macron, who’s a bit of a sort-of bloodless interest, to keep on side the parts of the country that don’t like him. So, I think you’ve probably right in saying that France has been a little different, but we also ought to just acknowledge here that – you quoted that piece I wrote about the shooting in Texas, the attack on Pamela Geller. One of the reasons I didn’t want to clear my throat in that was that everyone else was. In a sense, they were disavowing Geller and the danger of disavowing somebody is that at best, you’re making clear your own views. But at worst, you’re contributing to the idea that they had it coming. And if you asked me in a peaceful, liberal time, would you like Pamela Geller to be president? My answer would be no. But if you asked me, “IS there any equivalence whatsoever between Pamela Geller and people shooting bullets at her? I mean, the obvious answer is, “Of course there is not.” The moment you do that, it doesn’t matter, frankly, whether the other guy is the worst person who has ever lived.
And getting bogged down in evaluating whether they’re good or bad, trying to avoid in some way being glued to them, is counterproductive. And I think in France the victim in this latest attack was so obviously sympathetic and blameless –
Nico: Yeah. He was married, he was a father of a five-year-old boy. He was a teacher, you know? So.
Charles: Right. That there was no one in France saying, “Well.” Right? Now, I abhor the people who said, “Well, what about?” During the Charlie Hebdo shooting. But it was inevitable because we don’t all agree on free speech which is why you guys exist and why I’m on this podcast. But with this one, I mean, what it essentially said to those who are on the fence is, “Yes. They will come after you whoever you are. No, you don’t have to be a provocateur. No, it doesn’t matter that you were set up or not set up to offend.” All of the arguments, the terrible pernicious, abhorrent arguments that we read after Charlie Hebdo along the lines of, “Well, they kind of had it coming in some ways.”
Nico: Which is also a willful misunderstanding of what Charlie Habdo was actually doing.
Charles: Oh, it’s appalling.
Nico: And betrays a lack of knowledge of French culture and satire.
Charles: Right. Right. But those arguments were still forthcoming and in this case, you just could not make them.
Nico: Well, do you remember with PEN America they wanted to give their courage award, and they did give their courage award, to Charlie Habdo, and there was an uproar among their membership for even daring to do so? I think there were some resignations.
Nico: People decided not to attend the event. And this is an organization, a literary organization, devoted to the defense of free expression for writers. So, I thought that was quite astounding and betrayed, as I said, some of the instincts of the would-be censors.
Charles: Right, right, right. So, this was a clean hit, is what I’m trying to say, in that it was shorn – you’ll forgive me. My Godwin award here, but if you –
Nico: We’re going to Hitler. Okay.
Charles: Yeah. Well, not Hitler, but if you go back to the nature of aggression and how it’s perceived, there is just a big difference between the invasion of Poland and the invasion of the Sudeten land. In one case, the Germans were able to construct a semiplausible justification for their actions, and in the other, they weren’t. And I think –
Nico: Yeah. That is in the case of the Sudeten land, they had a justification. In the case of Poland, they did not.
Charles: Well, I don’t think they had justification for anything.
Nico: I know, but you said there’s a plausible one.
Charles: But the point is that those who are sympathetic are able to bend and acquiesce to the argument that is made, right? They will say, “Well, okay, but there’s a lot of people in that region who are German-speaking, have German heritage, a lot of them are actually quite friendly with and they don’t mind it, okay?”
Nico: And I believe it was taken in the Treaty of Versailles, right? It was – yeah.
Charles: Right. So it’s a complicate. Now, I have no time for it whatsoever in the same way as freedom of speech. Just absolutely not.
Charles: But it’s just what you’d end up doing when you’re arguing against that is you have to address 50 different sub-points and so on. Once you get to Poland, it’s like, okay. We can see where this is going. And so, if you’ll forgive me my analogy, that’s really what I think is happened in France is that all of the arguments that were made that Charlie Hebdo was more complicated, or well, what about this? Or, he had it coming, or they were prevoc – all of those, they’re garbage. The people who make them should be looked down upon. But they nevertheless took up a lot of time because they’re a lot of people in the world who think like that whereas with this one, I mean, I just didn’t see a single person say, “Well, let’s look into this guy’s life. Maybe he had it coming.” And because of that, it’s very, very difficult to do anything other than recognize the nature and scale of his threat.
Nico: What do you make – so I said at the beginning of this line of questioning that there has been a strong defense of values on behalf of Macron and his administration and some within French society, but at the same time they have, you know, the French Minister of the Interior ordered the Grand Mosque de Pantin to be closed for six months. It was one of the Mosques, or, I believe the Mosque that published videos that were alleged to have incited violence against the teacher that the dissolved to Islamic NGOs a collective against Islamophobia in France, Baraka city they were described as enemies of the state. And I think there were like they’re looking to disolve further 50 other organizations connected with radical Islam. I mean, in the United States that would be pretty difficult to do.
Charles: Yeah, it should be.
Nico: Shutting down religious organizations. And also, some of the allegations of incitement that you see would just never meet the Brandenburg standard of incitement here in the United States.
Charles: Look, I don’t think the French have got it right. I’m pleased that they’ve been full-throated in their condemnation and explanation of what happened, but I don’t think France is the correct model.
Charles: I love France, it’s just I am a Francophile. I’ve spent a lot of my life in France. I like to recommend it, but I’m in the United States for a reason and I view religious liberty and conscience rights as being inextricable from free speech. I don’t draw a line between them. France does not have particularly good free speech protections, it doesn’t have particularly good religious liberty protections, it doesn’t have particularly good protection of conscience rights. What I would like to see is an across the board understanding that irrespective of who we’re talking about or what they believe, the rights to free speech and conscience and religion are individual, unalienable, and don’t need to be balanced with anything else.
Now, clearly, if somebody is committing crimes, they can’t fall back on speech or conscience, or religion. There was no exception for Charles Manson’s conscience. But the actions that were taken in France I think were not limited to crime. They moved quite far into, essentially, actions against the dissemination of information or ideas. And although I accept that at the bleeding edge in the United States there is some room for government power – you mentioned the Brandenburg standard – that edge here is so far out.
Charles: Compared to in Britain or the United States or the rest of the world. And I personally find it rather alarming that when I’m told that, especially on college campuses, it’s usually presented as a problem. The United States is the only country in which, well, that’s why I’m here. I like it.
Nico: I realize now that we’re running up against an hour. I don’t know if you have an 11:00, but if you’ve got another five or ten minutes I did want to as you about social media companies and censorship.
Nico: Seems like a year ago that Twitter took down the New York Post Twitter account, or suspended the New York Post Twitter account for its reporting on the Joe Biden Hunter Biden Burisma or whatever. I forget what the context was even there. You’re not active on Twitter. I believe on your Twitter account it says that you’ve left the platform because you don’t find it useful or find it interesting. I kind of wanted to get your sense in the conservative movement the National Review is thought of as a conservative publication although at this point it’s like the conservative resistance. Though I’m sure you hate that adjective. The conservative movement to gut Section 230 which says, and I think I should read the clause here from the communications decency act because folks aren’t usually familiar with it. It says, “No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.”
I want to get your sense of this movement. I’ve heard you elsewhere say that you think it’s a bad idea and just on its face, I don’t see how this would help with the perceived censorship problems that you get from the social media companies. The argument being that they censor conservatives. If anything, it would make them worse in my mind.
Charles: Yes. I think Section 230 is an excellent law and I’m glad it’s there and I oppose its repeal. I think that ultimately Section 230 provides a rooting mechanism which directs complaints to the correct party. There’s a lot of nonsense spoken about Section 230 and a lot of myths. Some of them deliberate, some of them not. But one of them is that there is a distinction between platforms and publishers in the law; there’s not. And the other is that it accords to Big Tech corporations the right to immunity against civil, liable, or slander suits, which it doesn’t. What it does is make sure that the right person is punished if a liable is made on a digital service. So, if I go on Twitter and I say that the New Republic Magazine is full of child killers, I’m the one who is on the end of any legal action that results, not Twitter. If Twitter’s official account says the New Republic Magazine is full of child killers, they’re still liable. The point here is to ensure that organizations that can’t possibly review all of their content, their user-generated content before it goes up, do not end up being targeted for actions that they neither made themselves nor reviewed or approved.
Having said that, I also think I’m gonna lose.
Nico: Oh, you do?
Charles: Because –
Nico: You think that there will be some adjustments to Section 230? Interesting.
Charles: Yes. Or worse. And I’ll tell you why. Because it seems to me that while they are broadly right on the merits of this, Google, Twitter, and Facebook have a death wish. Have a suicide wish. [inaudible – crosstalk 00:59:06]
Nico: Begging for regulation.
Charles: Well, I wouldn’t put it quite like that because I still don’t think that regulation would solve it as you say. I think that if you take away the Section 230 protection, you’re going to see more intervention not less. And given the ideological bias of Twitter and those who run it, it’s probably going to be leveled against conservatives. But what I mean when I say they have a suicide wish is, if you look for example at Google’s position on Section 230, which spends an enormous amount of money advancing which is fine. It is that it is immoral for it to be held liable for a random YouTube commenter. This isn’t just a legal argument, this is a question of morality according to Google. Of fairness, of justice. And yet it seems entirely happy to withhold its advertizing services from private companies based on things that are said in their comment section.
Now, those are different questions, I accept. Google’s –
Nico: Well, is there a pretty solid argument for that? And maybe this is an inapt comparison and I hope you’ll correct me if you think so, but if I have a dinner party and I have created the forum for this dinner party at my home, and I invite a bunch of interesting people to come and sit around a table and one of those interesting people liable or defames someone else sitting at the dinner party, me as the forum provider shouldn’t be held liable for that defamation, right?
Nico: Which is essentially what gutting 230, now if gutting 230 would open the door for this I don’t know, but essentially what they’re asking for, those who would seek to gut 230, is to make the host of the dinner party responsible for what the people at the dinner party say.
Charles: Right. Right.
Nico: Which isn’t true. And I think is morally incorrect.
Charles: Right. And that’s what I’m suggesting is that Google is simultaneously arguing, now again, I should say I accept these are different circumstances. I accept that Google’s business to business activity is not regulated under 230, so this is not a legal argument. But Google cannot continue to say, on the one hand, it would be immoral for us to be liable for YouTube commenter’s words simply because we provided the platform and it is necessary for us to remove our services from any website who’s commenters say things.
Nico: Yeah. They want it both ways.
Charles: Well, they do. Because I think that people are moved on this question, not by technical discussions of the merits of Section 230, why it was written, what is a platform, what’s the difference between a host and a social media website. And so, I think people are moved on this by a sense of fairness.
Nico: Yeah. Double standards.
Charles: I think that Google – exactly. Google’s argument is a strong one when it’s grounded in the idea that it should not be punished for conduct for which it’s not responsible. I think once it starts making the opposite case when it suits it, you’re gonna see a split. And the other thing that makes me think they have a suicide risk is just the way that Twitter has behaved. With the president, with the Joe Biden story. Often politics is about power, it’s not about the principal, and if you want to routinely irritate the side that is itching to regulate you, you’re probably gonna pay for it.
Nico: This also isn’t really a conservative argument.
Nico: Before this conversation, I was reading up on the Electronic Freedom Foundation’s website, EFF’s website, about the legal protections provided by Section 230. They say they’re unique to United States law. European nations, Canada, Japan, and the vast majority of other countries do not have an equivalent. And they go on to say that while these countries have high levels of internet access, most prominent online services are based in the United States. And this is in part because Section 230 makes the US a safe haven for websites that want to provide a platform for controversial or political speech and a legal environment favorable to free expression. So, if you’re looking at this as a free-market conservative, you could risk losing the competitive advantage in gutting Section 230. We have Fang stocks because – and the “F” in Fang is Facebook and the “G” is Google – make up a huge share of the SMP 500. Do you risk losing some of those companies or future companies because you don’t provide them the legal environment that would make doing business possible? I don’t –
Charles: Yeah. And a legal environment that is not a special benefit. That is not unique protection, but that makes sense on its face. As a free-market conservative, I think that Twitter and Facebook as private companies should be able to do broadly whatever they want. If they decide they don’t want me on there because they don’t like my face, no, that’s fine with me. I don’t think the question of Section 230 regulation is connected to that. If you have a regime in which civil lawsuits can be brought, government is going to have to create rules and these rules make sense. I just think, unfortunately, that there is so much anger and irritation towards Silicon Valley on both left and right, I mean, we shouldn’t forget that the left in the United States spent four years arguing that Facebook switched the election result in 2016. And that if –
Nico: Yeah. Based on $100,000 worth of advertising and if I could get that result as a communications Vice President here at Fire, I would ask for a bonus.
Charles: Right. Right, right. So all that, what I’m saying is that I don’t like it. It’s not how I think.
Charles: But I think that if I’m probably going to lose this argument just to a majority that doesn’t care.
Nico: Yeah, well I realize I’ve kept you longer than I promised you, but it’s been a pleasure. Like I said, I’ve been hoping to get you on the podcast ever since I was first introduced to your thinking on these issues in that Kenyan panel and I do hope that you’ll keep writing about them, Charles.
Charles: Of course.
Nico: You’ve got some very interesting things to say. Thanks again for coming on the show.
Charles: Oh, thank you so much for having me.
Nico: That was nationalreview.com editor Charles C.W. Cook. He is also the co-host of Mad Dogs Englishmen, an excellent national review podcast. This podcast, however, is hosted, produced, and recorded by me, Nico Perrino, and edited by my colleague Aaron Reece. You can learn more about So To Speak by following us on Twitter at twitter.com/freespeechtalk or liking us on Facebook at facebook.com/sotospeakpodcast. If you have feedback, we take it at firstname.lastname@example.org. We also take reviews, which you can consider leaving on Apple podcast, Google Play, or wherever else you get your podcasts. They do help us attract new listeners to the show. And until next time, I thank you all again for listening.