The task that appears most urgent today is the destruction of the authoritarian right. Not because the authoritarian right is more malicious than the authoritarian left, but because it holds power across the west. Liberal-minded people making an informed calculation must surely decide to avoid distractions and concentrate their fire on the enemy that matters. Or so a seductive argument goes.
If you are an American voter, your sole priority should be the removal of Donald Trump. If you are British, you must concentrate on building a viable opposition to a Conservative party whose neglect and stupidity have wrecked the economy and killed tens of thousands. The slogan “no enemies to the left” is never more appealing than when it can be dressed in language that appeals to those who pose as tough-minded.
But it won’t wash, and not just because the motives of those who scour the web to find evidence of the sins of others are those of the inquisitor and stool pigeon. In the world of practical politics, refusing to confront leftish authoritarianism leaves you with two options. You will either lose and deserve to lose, for you should have known that every time the far left has taken on the authoritarian right in the west it has lost. Or, and this may be worse, you will win and repent your failure to check that your new bosses were worthy of your trust.
According to the supposedly tough-minded view, signing a letter to Harper’s protesting at the stifling of debate can only weaken “our side”. A defence of the signatories should begin by noting that they were telling the truth when they complained that “writers, artists, and journalists … fear for their livelihoods if they depart from the consensus, or even lack sufficient zeal in agreement”. Note the precision. The signatories were not saying it is wrong for people to lay into others: freedom of speech is the freedom to criticise or it is nothing. Their point was that many live in fear of campaigns to destroy them if they don’t mouth the right opinions.
I’m surprised such a statement of the obvious could be controversial. No honest observer can deny that the dominant factions in the modern progressive movement reject freedom of speech. They punish opinions they disagree with when they have power; and the more power they have, the more they will punish. You may think the censorship justified, but to deny its existence is absurd. Tellingly, few bother to deny it now. Occasionally, you can see them raise the exhausted excuse from the grave that only the state can censor. On this reading, Islamists killing cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo, or CEOs firing whistleblowers, are not censoring because they are not civil servants. More popular in the past week has been the claim that writers with the reach of Margaret Atwood, Noam Chomsky, JK Rowling and Salman Rushdie cannot take a moral stand because no one can suppress their thought – even though their critics give every impression of wanting to do just that.
Panic at the fear of denunciation and bad faith posing as rectitude can be found across the west
Leave aside their belief that ad hominem and ad feminam attacks can refute an argument, and consider that the worst of the old elite directed its attention to silencing the marginalised because it knew that their voice was often the only weapon the latter possessed. Then look around. Now as then, people without access to lawyers and influential friends suffer the most.
To take an example of that encapsulates the cowardice of our times: the Washington Post, a newspaper I admire and have written for, went to enormous lengths to destroy the life of one Sue Schafer, a middle-aged woman who made a mistake. She turned up to a Halloween party at the home of one of its cartoonists in blackface. She did not mean to insult African Americans but had come dressed as a ghoul in the guise of a conservative morning show host who had defended whites blacking up. The joke didn’t work, as several guests forcefully told her. Because the words “Washington Post” and “blackface” could be said in the same sentence, and because several guests looked as if they might go public two years later, the paper gave 3,000 words to the “story” – the amount of space normally reserved for a terrorist attack or declaration of war. Her employer, a government contractor, fired her. Everyone’s back was covered except Schafer’s and, frankly, she was a woman of no importance.
Panic at the fear of denunciation and bad faith posing as rectitude can be found across the west. A comparison with the right shows how deep the decay has reached. Conservatives know there are thoughts they cannot whisper – Brexit is a mistake comparable to Munich and Suez, anti-black and anti-Muslim racism are tangible evils, poverty makes a nonsense of equality of opportunity. Likewise on the liberal left, the canny careerist takes care to avoid being caught on the “wrong side” of arguments about trans and women’s rights, leftwing antisemitism, and bigotry in ethnic minorities. The canniest decide the best course is to say nothing at all.
The British ought to know the dangers of thinking there are no enemies to the left. Because Labour members failed to confront the crankery and racism of the Corbyn movement, they drove millions into Boris Johnson’s clammy embrace. I doubt the same will happen in the US. Joe Biden has his faults, but he is no one’s idea of a commissar. That is not to say there won’t be a heavy price to pay. The nationalist right is determined to police opinion. In Hungary and Poland, the media are becoming its propaganda organs. Trump incites hatred of reporters who tell the truth about his administration. Johnson threatens the independence of the BBC and Channel 4. Yet they can pose as the champions of free expression because the loudest strain in progressivism has embraced censorship. The practical danger in giving up on freedom of speech is that the day will come when you find you are lost for words just when you need them most.
•Nick Cohen is an Observer columnist