A specter is haunting America — the specter of free expression. Interest groups from across American culture have entered into a self-righteous, holy alliance to exorcize this specter. Beginning in the 1980s, Evangelical Christians joined hands with anti-porn Feminists. Today, professedly radical activists police new orthodoxies while old-school conformists seek to reverse the cultural transformations brought by American social justice movements beginning in the 1960s — both using the same methods. Meanwhile, risk-averse publishing executives and self-censoring leaders of higher education work to sanitize the learning process — under pressure from aggressive stakeholders and a 24/7 news cycle of public outrage fueled by social media.
Nowhere in this picture does it become clear that government involvement is necessary for a culture of self-censorship to take root in America. The signs are everywhere that we are silencing ourselves through our private cultural institutions, sometimes without any coercive obligation or directive to do so from our government.
Censorship does not only come directly from the public institutions that one would expect. Rather, censorship is sometimes self-imposed by private citizens and their own private organizations. Yet censorship’s insidious harms remain intact, whether they are imposed by government mandate or private choice. In the United States today, there is a general recognition of the government’s proper role in allowing free speech, but unfortunately, private citizens and organizations regularly demonstrate disregard for the values which animate the First Amendment: values which proclaim openness to dissent and tolerance of differing opinions to be indispensable to the progress of our society. Free speech is valuable outside of governmental contexts, and by limiting our critical attention only to situations where the First Amendment directly applies, we demonstrate a lack of commitment to building an open society. The current free speech crisis at Haverford College, where students and administrators have chosen to perpetuate a culture of self-censorship unto themselves, is reflective of a national culture which no longer values free expression.
The situation is perhaps most visible on college and university campuses — microcosms of American society writ large — where there is no shortage of worrying recent developments. Last school year, a committee at the University of Tennessee voted to expel pharmacology student Kimberly Diei. Her offense? Tweeting “crude” Cardi B lyrics and sharing “vulgar” sex-positive opinions on Twitter. Last spring, writing professor Aneil Rallin received notice that he would be investigated by his university for misconduct. His offense? Assigning his students provocative writings by black and queer authors which his administration termed “deviant pornography” and “triggering.” Meanwhile, at Collin College, a McCarthyist purge of left-wing professors has swept through campus over the past few years.
Yet such trends are not limited to college and university campuses. Over the summer, social democrat Ruy Teixeira announced his departure from the Center for American Progress on the grounds that the organization’s adherence to new social justice orthodoxies created a chilled speech environment unsupportive of his class-centric/class-conscious research, which foregrounded economic disadvantage rather than focusing specifically on matters of race. In the midst of America’s summer of racial reckoning in 2020, David Shor, a progressive Democratic pollster, was fired over backlash to one of his tweets, which had suggested that non-violent protests would be more electorally beneficial to left-wing political candidates than violent protests. That same summer, a utility company worker named Emmanuel Cafferty was fired for hanging his left hand out of the window of his pickup truck, since another driver interpreted his hand placement to connote a white supremacist gesture.
These are the stories which often lie forgotten by the public in the shuffle of today’s culture wars, where free speech is routinely miscast as nothing more than a conservative talking point and where few leftists acknowledge that an anti-free-speech culture harms the very people the left claims to champion. If the political left is to keep its voice, it must renew its historically unequivocal support for a free speech culture in America, and it must reaffirm protections even for speech which we find abhorrent. As Noam Chomsky has said, “if we don’t believe in freedom of speech for those we despise, we don’t believe in it at all.” Conformists who seek to enforce a party line must be challenged by those who seek to build an authentic and open political left.
As the left adopts anti-free-speech positions under the banner of increasingly-stringent morality codes, we limit our own voices and hand over precedent for those on the right to play the same game but with more nefarious intentions. “Don’t Say Gay” and “Anti-CRT” laws are the price we pay for normalizing a culture of censorship. As such, it is time we stop entrusting our social goals to careerist bureaucrats (nomenklatura equivalents) who merely provide aesthetic solutions — like speech codes — to substantive social problems. At schools like Haverford, this means rejecting paternalistic intrusions into student life from administrators and repealing repressive, student-written social rules which dictate what can and can’t be said on campus.
There is nothing radical or revolutionary about speech codes: they are neo-Victorian tools of repression which enforce upper-class norms of politeness and conformity. Censorious “cancel culture” inquisitions advance no authentically left-wing cause and have victimized working-class janitors at Smith College and Notre Dame, who were fired and investigated, respectively, for upsetting the easily-offended private school students on their campuses.
By decimating a culture of free speech and embracing the technology of auto-totality which Václav Havel warned about in the 1970s, the left of today is constructing its own sepulcher and paving the way for totalitarianism by creating a culture of individuals who are willing to accept the loss of their individual freedoms. The contemporary left must re-awaken to the long history of socialist objections to centralization, bureaucracy, and excessive statism — critiques which have historically targeted speech codes and restrictions on expression — and which formed the intellectual basis of the Kronstadt Rebellion.
As with the Kronstadt Rebellion of the 1920s and the "Kronstadt moments" experienced by left-wing intellectuals who defected from communism in the 1940s and 1950s, the left of today must loudly correct course from within. This publication is modeled after The God That Failed, which chronicled the “Kronstadt moments” experienced by Louis Fischer, André Gide, Arthur Koestler, Ignazio Silone, Stephen Spender, and Richard Wright through a series of personal essays. It seeks to apply a similar strain of thought to today’s distinct political moment.
Writing in the name of the “Kronstadt” today means focusing on the impact that overzealous culture warriors have on working-class and middle-class Americans. It means acknowledging the decline in expressive freedoms that our own political allies are bringing about. It means suspicion of centralized, universal norms imposed from above and celebration of community, individuality, and local autonomy. And most importantly, it requires looking at ourselves and our perpetuation of a silent society when we choose self-censorship over self-expression.
New, publicly-shared “Kronstadt moments” whose narratives explain why we must stand against the auto-totality, groupthink, and conformism present in today’s culture of censorship are desperately needed in order to provoke a sea change in the spirit of the Kronstadt’s Petropavlovsk resolution calling for freedom of speech, press, and association on the left. What better place for the revolution to begin than the progressive panacea of Haverford College?
By: William Harris, creator and editor of The New Kronstadt