With few exceptions, the left has celebrated the multiplatform decision to ban Alex Jones’ popular “Infowars” brand from most virtual venues, notably on Facebook and Youtube where Jones had accumulated millions of viewers with his Texan brand of political straight talk, which often bordered on the conspiratorial.
The left preemptively reacted to the nearly defunct center liberal position which traditionally defends “freedom of speech” regardless of the content in question, claiming that the danger Jones’ show represents is so great that censorship is warranted, or that their derision for Jones is so intensive that they are willing to suspend their general beliefs on the question.
The right had previously set to whining endlessly about “free speech” as students and activists around the U.S. began to blockade or protest visits by right-wing figures on university campuses, albeit that the line was often blurry on whether or not these students were also simply exercising their own “freedom of speech” in saying they did not want particular political voices to find expression on their campus.
At that point we essentially reached an impasse, both sides had a sufficient abstract claim validating their actions, and when such impasses inevitably come to ahead, violence often begins.
Whereas the right has responded in turn, suggesting that the left has reached some new reactive level of intolerance which has turned them into hypocrites, the reality is rooted in sentiments adopted from the New Left in the 1960s, which have gained serious ground in reaction to the election of Donald Trump.
We can see this ideology most specifically elaborated in Herbert Marcuse’s 1965 text Repressive Tolerance, which complicates the traditional liberal idea that political debate takes place within a “marketplace of ideas” where debate can serve as the primary means to enact political change. There is a definite truth to this text that has become harder and harder to ignore: there are no clear winners in a rhetorical debate. In reality, politics is about the systems of power that operate behind these expressions of discourse.
The central idea of the essay is that in a political system dominated by right wing ideology, tolerance for conservative voices is actually very dangerous for democracy – as a matter of fact, the repression of voices which facilitate violence and inequality would actually help to sustain equality and freedom of speech in a deeper sense.
This is a radical response to traditional liberal theories of freedom which maintain that the question of freedom should be taken up from the individual level and proceed to the social; for Marcuse, we should begin with broad social inequalities in order to take a more structural view of inequality in society, and make adjustments accordingly.
This idea is an expression of an idea that is much older and more general, which philosophers, ethicists and political theorists have always struggled with: does true freedom and equality entail a certain degree of repression?
The question in some sense is entirely irrelevant, or evades the reality of the question at hand. Discourse and law are not the bottom line where political life takes place, as classical political liberals had presumed.
Politics is what happens when these tacit social agreements can’t decide the question at hand, and nonetheless, a decision has to be made. Marcuse, for all of his issues, perfectly understood this problem, and provided an answer as dangerous as it was appropriate. While we of course are not suggesting that anything other than a very small minority of those advocating censorship have read Marcuse, his influence on the New Left is manifold, and has transferred to the present in a variety of formats.
Many of the advocates for Jones’ censure still attempt to work within a liberal framework to validate their outlook, but nonetheless have to invoke the cracks in that outlook where a “state of exception” can be invoked: examples are hate speech legislation, or the general exceptions to the first amendment which stipulate that speech which advocates immediate violence can be curtailed.
In our contemporary hyper-politicized climate where racial violence is an everyday reality, there is a real argument to be made that those who participate in discourse which demonizes already threatened minority groups are participants in the violence… but in taking this position, we are already accepting Marcuse’s thesis: we are treating the problem starting at a broad social level which can account for the way discourse interacts with action.
At this level, most contemporary political commentators are complicit in social violence, and many more so than Jones. Treating him as a simple aberration promotes the idea that the social body is otherwise healthy, ignoring the political realities that find expression in media like Infowars.
Looking at these questions through the prism of an abstract “freedom” is how the American version of classical liberal traditionally served to protect racialized violence in society: if we take liberal theory at face value, it is absolutely true that those who feel curtailing the rights of Muslims will help protect society have as much right to express that idea as those who feel like such an expression is a threat to Muslims’ rights as individuals. This is why liberal groups like the ACLU openly and proudly defend the KKK.
However, things are very different than they were in 1965. The neoliberal regime of the 1980s absolutely altered the political arena, signaling the failure of the New Left to implement their vision of a new American society, and for some the end of history along with all competition in truth claims.
The contemporary political arena is no longer conservative in the traditional sense invoked by Marcuse, in fact, most of the largest media conglomerates, celebrities and web-venues are openly hostile to the Trump White House.
On the eve of Trump’s election, almost no one predicted his victory – this is because media sources, acting in the interests of massive corporate entities which almost universally preferred a Clinton presidency, actively worked to discourage Trump votes by suggesting the decision has already been made, as they had already done to help defeat presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders.
More significantly for our purposes, however, is the recent crusade against so-called “fake news” by the new centers of global information: social media networks, predominately Facebook. These sites have the right to make arbitrary decisions regarding the political content allowed on their websites, and they make these decisions despite their initial claims to adhere to adhere to a philosophy of open access and democratic horizontal principles.
Facebook has the ability to determine what counts as a normative framework for discourse, which is an extremely troubling principle considering that now more than ever the dominant neoliberal framework is being debated in a serious way.
Concepts like the “post-truth” society and “fake-news” are becoming increasingly prevalent because they attempt to circumvent challenges to the normative ideological frameworks we have become accustomed to by simply re-asserting the presence of a concrete set of truths that have to the present protected a centrist vision of reality.
This is where Alex Jones comes in, perhaps the most controversial figure in modern media. Like Trump, Jones’ ascent to fame came without the resources of major corporate media, naturally flourishing on platforms which don’t require such resources starting with public television, and adapting successfully onto various social media platforms.
To be clear, I find most of Jones’ political views to be repugnant, and tune in (like many millenials) for cheap laughs or the occasional interesting guest. Nonetheless, Jones’ show does represent something that the new lords of media have deemed absolutely intolerable, and that is that he promotes a critical vision of reality which seriously questions the stability of normative political narratives, and occasionally reality in general.
In an age where the neoliberal hold on “truth” is splintering, and new political assemblages are forming, it is not Alex Jones’ Sandy Hook conspiracy or intolerant view of Muslims which is dangerous to Facebook: it is the epistemological threat his outlook entails.
The left should oppose this censorship not because censorship itself is a negative thing, in fact it is often an incredibly progressive tool, and one which no society in history has truly dispensed of. But in this particular moment, censorship should be opposed due to the fact that it comes at the exact time Facebook employees this same logic to silence the voices of Palestinians, shut down media sources which counter the narrative of American exceptionalism, and in general attempts to forcibly re-establish the normative neoliberal notion of “truth”. Fort Russ News itself has been a victim of this version of censorship.
In order to advocate for a better world, we should look to open up spaces for establishing counter-hegemonic truths, not close them. The media has strongly promoted the narrative that “Fake news” is a product of non-American sources, a viewpoint which strongly precipitated the recent wave of bans… yet this idea actually participates in the very same climate of xenophobia which people have accused Jones of inciting. It attempts to displace, rather than confront the deep rooted issues in American society.
A broken clock is right twice a day, and occasionally Jones’ show does present important critical narratives on questions like U.S. intervention in Syria, but more abstractly it is an expression of the feeling of being coerced, lied to and poisoned by powerful forces outside of our control- a feeling that I suspect has become all too familiar for a large number of people. This is not to mention the argument many others have made, that the censorship in some sense has confirmed Jones’ paranoid outlook.
Jones’ outlook creates a public space for metacritical discourse which can open positive and negative possibilities for viewers unsatisfied with the traditional sanitized answers.
As entities like Facebook attempt to scrub reality of its wild diversity and creativity into sterile white and blue stripes, the first to be erased are those on the fringe who represent the less than savory results of a truly debilitating and monstrous global political system.