As America’s acid bath of a presidential campaign boils to a merciful close, the political clamor is becoming increasingly indistinguishable from a shouting match about, over, and against the media. Twitter is still blocking the New York Post‘s main account a week after the tabloid’s controversial article on Hunter Biden’s alleged corruption. President Donald Trump has been waging preemptive war against upcoming debate moderator Kristin Welker and 60 Minutes correspondent Leslie Stahl. Sacha Baron Cohen, in a Borat sequel that ends with a plea for viewers to vote, just tried to honey-pot Rudy Giuliani.
The partisan lopsidedness to this debate, between attempted authoritarian and “enemy of the people,” can give off the misleading impression that the divide over free speech and its applications is a clean philosophical schism, with conservatives on one side, progressives and most journalists on the other. In fact it is not.
The fight over media is more a fight over power, and who gets to wield it, than a fight over principle, and how it should be applied. Trump and Joe Biden both want to roll back the speech protections in Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act; the difference is that the president would do it in the name of protecting conservatives and the former vice president would do it in the name of restricting conservative misinformation. Sens. Ted Cruz (R–Texas) and Elizabeth Warren (D–Mass.) agree that Facebook and Twitter are guilty of “election interference”; it just depends on which election. Google faces antitrust enthusiasm from House Democrats and Bill Barr’s Justice Department alike. (This morning, on Fox Business Network’s Mornings with Maria, Donald Trump, Jr., asserted that this election would be a referendum on the First Amendment, because only his father could be trusted with following through on his promise to break up Big Tech, because Democrats who talk a big game are actually in bed with their censorious Silicon Valley overlords.)
The more politics (and its worst form, war) subsumes life, the more free speech is treated as a means to an end rather than as a magnificent if always-threatened achievement of the Enlightenment. It is no accident that the bipartisan clampdown on speech in the governmental realm is coinciding in the intellectual realm with a noisy right-left rethink of the Enlightenment itself.