The mounting Democratic assault on free speech is finally producing blowback – most lately, from a bill proposed by California State Senator Melissa Melendez to protect diversity of political belief and affiliation. Her much-overdue legislation (Senate bills 238 and 249) are together known as the Diversity of Thought Act, which seeks to modify both California Government and Education Codes, ensuring citizens cannot be discriminated against based on political views. That such a bill is needed speaks loudly to the sad deterioration of American political culture. In an age of multiculturalism, the woke frenzy, and identity-politics mania it appears that every known human property has been legally protected but one: that of political belief.
In the supposed land of freedom and democracy, Californians – like other Americans – do in 2021 require special legislation to protect free speech. A brief glance at U.S. history reveals a tortured legacy of political repression directed against those daring to hold unpopular beliefs: suffragists, anarchists, socialists, Communists, antiwar and civil rights activists to name some. Now? Well, after years and decades of free-speech activism in defense of First Amendment rights, the country has once again descended into a reign of bigotry and censorship – this time orchestrated by sanctimonious Democratic elites and their shills in the media and Big Tech.
Melendez notes that “it is unfathomable to me that corporations and members of the public would ruin a person’s career, business, and family because of their political ideology. A free society should not allow thoughts and ideas to be censored. Free speech covers all speech –not just that with which you agree.” But thanks to small-minded Democratic politicians, censorship has indeed been the order of the day, and it’s getting steadily worse in schools, on college campuses, in businesses, in the political system, across Silicon Valley and the corporate media. Though scarcely necessary, the Senator added: “A climate of intolerance has been established and has stifled healthy and normal debate.”
As if to immediately validate Melendez’ claims, Democratic Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzales, based in San Diego, fired back on Twitter: “I don’t know who needs to hear this today, but your racist, pro-domestic terrorism, xenophobic, misogynist views do not warrant protection from discrimination. Your choice to hate does not make you part of a protected class.” If this crude outburst happened to be directed specifically at Melendez, then charges of racism and misogynism, not to mention “domestic terrorism”, could be nothing more than another mindless episode of hate speech. In fact Gonzales never identified any concrete example related to Melendez, so best to assume she has in mind some larger targeted collective.
Xenophobia? Can Gonzales be taken seriously? She is a fiercely partisan member of a party that has spent five years promoting the nonstop Russiagate hoax – probably the most disgraceful episode of media-fanned xenophobia in American history. Here was an entirely contrived hatred that brought the U.S. and Russia, heavily-armed nuclear states, disturbingly close to military conflict. There is no sign that Gonzales ever spoke out against such national outrage, which continues into the present. Further, if she has condemned the months of ongoing domestic violence carried out by Antifa and Black Lives Matter, still visible in a few cities, we have no record of it.
Being free to speak one’s political mind, without fear of retribution, has deep psychological meaning for me. I happened to be one of those students who occupied Sproul Hall to protest crackdowns on free speech at U.C., Berkley in fall 1964. I still own the original hand-painted button that spells “FSM”. Later, for the crime of political deviance (as a Gramscian Marxist) I was purged from my reputedly safe job as professor at Washington University in St. Louis. Calling the shots for the university were three giant corporations – Monsanto, McDonnell-Douglas, Ralston-Purina. Aside from my activism against the Vietnam War during the early 1970s, I helped organize the infamous McDonnell-Douglas Project as well as the local underground newspaper, The Outlaw. Any right to combat political repression I had was strictly formal – and my fate was hardly unusual.
It turned out that this personal experience would soon intersect with the life and work of Frank Wilkinson – for decades known as “Mr. First Amendment” – lasting more than 30 years. We were close friends. As visiting professor at Carleton University in Ottawa during 1985, I invited Frank (a spellbinding orator on behalf of free speech) for a lecture tour of Ontario. Wilkinson passed away in January 2006 after a prolific career of speaking, writing, and activism dedicated to First Amendment rights. Knowing him as I did, he would be outraged today at the despotic attitude of Lorena Gonzales and other Democratic admirers of Big Brother.
For more than 50 years, Wilkinson was indefatigable and uncompromising: he knew that, without free speech, efforts to challenge any power structure were doomed. So too were any prospects for personal freedom. At the time of his death, ACLU president Nadine Strossen would describe Wilkinson as “a towering and inspiring figure throughout his entire career, starting from when he was a young person advocating for equal rights for the poor and racial minorities.” She added: “He was constantly challenging governmental power to restrict First Amendment freedoms of belief, speech, and association, as well as privacy, which continues to be relevant today.” For his tireless work, Wilkinson was targeted by J. Edgar Hoover, Senator Joe McCarthy, and the same intelligence agencies that Democrats today have come to embrace.
In 1958, during a visit to Atlanta in support of civil-rights activists called before the notorious House Un-American Activities Committee, Wilkinson was subpoenaed and then cited for contempt of Congress when asserting his own First Amendment right to refuse to testify. He was sentenced to one year in federal prison, serving nine months.
Wilkinson helped form the National Committee to Abolish HUAC in 1960, later renamed the National Committee against Repressive Legislation (NCARL) in 1975, when HUAC was finally disbanded. Wilkinson took serious personal risks to ensure political dissent would be protected -- the same protection Gonzales and her righteous party hacks now want to destroy. The dark, repressive side of American history associated with Hoover and McCarthy, the FBI and CIA, is now being revived with sanctimonious fury by current defenders of unfettered corporate-state power.
For Wilkinson – in stark contrast to the bigoted, iron-fisted Gonzales – the Bill of Rights was a living document in need of constant renewal. In 1986 he filed a Freedom of Information Act suit against the FBI and eventually was sent 132,000 pages of files spanning 38 years of federal surveillance and espionage. The story of Wilkinson’s ordeal would find its way into Robert Sherrill’s appropriately-titled biography, First Amendment Felon, in 2005.
In the 15 years since Wilkinson’s death, matters have only gotten worse; the Gonzales diatribe, unfortunately, perfectly fits the Democratic modus operandi. Ordinary conservatives are denounced as “white supremacists”, “Nazis”, and “domestic terrorists”, many targeted for personal ruin even where evidence of such transgression is nowhere to be found. Collective guilt is blithely imputed to broad groups of people simply going about their everyday lives. Medical professionals daring to veer from official narratives are smeared and cancelled, their jobs and careers jeopardized. Vaccine doubters can encounter a similar fate. Questionable opinions expressed years in the past nowadays come back to haunt, if not destroy. Anyone brazen enough to criticize the actual domestic terrorism of Antifa and BLM -- spanning several months, not a few hours -- will be smeared as a vile “white nationalist”.
While Red Scares of earlier years originated from the pathetic schemes of Hoover and McCarthy, today the threats are far more pervasive, cloaked (as before) in the language of moral enlightenment. Dissidents are nowadays savaged as wretched haters, extremists, terrorists – not to mention, in a period of extreme Russiaphobia, as “foreign agents” or “traitors”. CNN pundits, typically at the forefront, routinely parrot blind hate when referring to Russians, oblivious to meaningful facts and context. Centers of power work to impose ideological conformity: corporate media, Wall Street, deep state, Big Tech, academia, military-industrial complex. Stripped of binding protections, individuals and groups targeted are much too weak and isolated to effectively fight back.
In earlier days dissent was said to be the work of “heretics” or “subversives”, marginal Commies readily hunted down by the Feds. (In American society, the CPUSA was always something of a joke, yet still targeted for years as a major threat.) Nowadays the morality police, backed by the usual oligarchs and billionaires, are ready to pounce on sinful transgressions large and small: white supremacy, transphobia, Covid denial, scheming with the Russians. Those stepping outside the ideologically-vetted discourses of CNN, Washington Post, and New York Times will be identified, demeaned, censored, and (where possible) punished. Reality cops guard against the evils of “misinformation”, “disinformation”, and “conspiracy theories” that undermine “our democracy”. In the case of California, the bill proposed by Melendez will be seized upon by Gonzales and identity-politics fanatics as a sign of guilt, of sinful deviance.
Recently two California members of the U.S. Congress, Democrats Anna Eshoo and Jerry McNerny, sent letters to twelve cable, satellite, and streaming companies – AT&T, Verizon, Apple, Alphabet among them – urging management to shut down centers of “misinformation”, starting with FOX TV. These ideological guardians believe media outlets are contributing to a “polluted environment”, spewing lies that lead to “seditious behavior” and, worse, Covid “science denial”. The problem for Eshoo and McNerny, however, is that pandemic tropes advanced by their favorite corporate-media outlets veer toward fear-rattling propaganda more than established medical science: false computer projections, wildly-inflated death rates, unscientific lockdown orders, needless school closings, mixed signals on facemasks, over-hyping of vaccines. Eshoo and McNerny are best advised to look closer to home, to their own conduits of false information.
Could liberal Democrats, in past years known as champions of free speech and civil rights, have now become so embedded in the power structure that their authoritarian impulses reflect a new-found hubris? Could Gonzales and her anointed elites be imbued with the level of political certitude their censorship zeal seems to imply? Could the party that has carried out years of witch hunts linked to debunked tales of Putin-Trump collusion actually believe in its political integrity? My guess is that Democratic righteousness really masks insecurity and deceit: those responsible for the endless lies and myths must know those lies and myths cannot survive the test of open debate. Easier to denounce your critics as “white nationalists”, cancel their speech platforms, than close off discussion. The shutting down of oppositional speech reflects acute intellectual weakness, not strength.
In the end, the “diversity” and “inclusion” that Gonzales and Democrats piously celebrate is nothing but a sham. Those words have relevance only within a single narrative – a tightly-regulated, fiercely-guarded worldview consistent with elite agendas. Where real diversity should matter most – regarding conflict over how power is exercised, over economic policy and job concerns, over matters of war and peace – genuine debate is largely absent, overridden by an ensemble of authoritarian codes, norms, and practices. Corporate-state rulers manage what is truly important. As with earlier lies and myths about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq or “humanitarian crises” in Serbia and Libya, years of Russiagate tales of a stolen election would never be “fact-checked”, but instead repeated monotonously by liberals and their stable of media propagandists. According to Gonzales, all this deceitful manipulation at the hands of Democrats must fall into the category of “protected speech”.
Oligarchical power rules American society more thoroughly than ever, its conformist ideology the true measure of political speech. Identity politics furnishes an opportune facade behind which those in control can expand their power, wealth, and technological advantage never having to worry about anti-system insurgency (keeping mind that January Sixth was no more than a primitive, entirely ineffective revolt). Supposedly progressive figures like Gonzales, fearing real diversity, serve as valuable instruments of such rule and its legitimation, which those figures always embellish with an ethos of righteous arrogance.
In years past the break with political orthodoxy was denounced as un-American, disloyal, a fifth-column menace, targeted now and then for blacklisting. Nowadays even moderate dissidents are accused of “domestic terrorism” – a charge dutifully repeated by Gonzales. Contemporary dissidents are in fact no better than Nazis, or at least neo-Nazis, meaning they are eligible to be “de-platformed”, sent before a “Reality Czar”. Yet it is Gonzales and her power-mongering ideologues who wind up closer to the monolithic, hateful spirit of fascism than their hapless targets of collective guilt owing to mere association with a political party or outlook. Those ideologues turn out to be the biggest threats to “our democracy”. As Wilkinson had long ago recognized, the struggle against such malevolence is not simply legal but cultural and political – and is never finished.