Beware of pundits bearing scare quotes

Three days after the announcement of Elon Musk’s Twitter acquisition, the great freak-out over the future of the platform rumbles on. Amid many hyperbolic warnings about what the maverick tech billionaire’s ownership means not just for the social media site but for democracy as we know it, one argument sticks out for its perniciousness.

It’s not the idea that Musk, a professed free speech absolutist, will under-police the social network and let the trolls run wild. Even if I think Twitter has been far too censorious in recent years, there is a reasonable debate to be had about how social media companies should police speech on their networks.

No, the really dangerous response to the Twitter sale is to claim that the free speech which Musk says he cares about is little more than an illusion, a myth or a lie. This idea has been hinted at regularly by the progressive establishment this week. Commentators have referred not to free speech but to “free speech,” with the scare quotes there to suggest to readers that something suspicious lurks between them. Daytime television hosts complain that “free speech” is really about “free speech of straight white men.” Cable news rabble-rousers call not for free speech but “abundant and equitable speech.

But it isn’t just the talking heads. The free speech scare quotes have proliferated in recent days on the web pages of the Atlantic, once a bastion of classical liberal values. Even the supposedly sober, authoritative Associated Press has given free speech the scare quote treatment, and reports that “terms like ‘censorship’ and ‘free speech’ have turned into political rallying cries for conservatives.” Even the ACLU — an organization founded to protect First Amendment rights — could not bring itself to acknowledge there might be any free speech benefits to Musk’s acquisition.

“Free speech is the bedrock of a functioning democracy, and Twitter is the digital town square where matters vital to the future of humanity are debated,” said Musk when the sale was announced. There are good reasons to wonder if Musk will live up to his promise of boosting free speech. And we deserve better than having to rely on a billionaire savior to allow for free and open public debate in the United States.

Some on the left still profess support for free speech. In his speech on misinformation at Stanford last week, Barack Obama at least felt compelled to make clear his support for this basic democratic value while pontificating on misinformation. But for an ascendant and radical faction of American liberals, free speech, as protected by the First Amendment, is just another outdated idea cooked up by old white dudes and long past its expiration date. Here, the snark shown for “free speech” is part of a worrying pattern, with more and more powerful voices in America’s progressive establishment chipping away at the values upon which American democracy and success is built. The clearest case is the 1619 Project, the New York Times’s discredited and aggressive attempt to change the date of America’s founding and rewrite the country’s history to understand it primarily as a point of shame, not pride.

As the Musk freak-out has revealed, a worryingly broad swathe of the left seems reluctant to offer even the slightest nod to the importance of free speech in a democracy — all so that they can score partisan points in a fight over a tech billionaire and a social network. They do not realize what a dangerous game they are playing. Or that they are eroding a value that has, historically, been an essential tool of the disenfranchised, the poor and the marginalized who have sought to be heard. The great abolitionist Frederick Douglass saw free speech as central to his cause, and the most important right of all. “No right was deemed by the fathers of the Government more sacred than the right of speech,” he told a group of abolitionists in 1860. “It was in their eyes, as in the eyes of all thoughtful men, the great moral renovator of society and government.”

Americans have the great privilege of inheriting these timeless principles from the Founding Fathers and from Douglass. Remember that the next time you see snarky scare quotes around the words “free speech.”

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The West settles in for an attritional fight in Ukraine

Joe Biden called on America to “meet this moment, and do its part,” in a letter to lawmakers this morning requesting $33 billion in additional aid to Ukraine. The ask comes as Biden addresses the nation on the conflict, outlining extra support and denouncing Putin’s saber rattling. As the New York Times notes today, this is a shift in the rhetoric from Western leaders on the war that suggests they “are preparing for a long and grinding war.” The Times also points to defense secretary Lloyd Austin’s recent comments that the US aim is to “weaken” Russia. A longer war is not necessarily a contained war, however, with fears reportedly growing in Western capitals of the possibility of a spillover of the conflict beyond the borders of Ukraine.

The Cawthorn clown show continues

My colleague Cockburn reports on the latest antics of North Carolina congressman Madison Cawthorn and finds his behavior reminiscent of “a Capitol Hill freshman fraternity pledge who just can’t seem to get the rules of the house down.” That’s about right. Cawthorn has a spectacular talent for making headlines — albeit for the all the wrong reasons. There’s the time he referred to Hitler as “the Fuhrer,” the time he called Zelensky a “thug,” the time he accused fellow lawmakers of cocaine-fueled sexual perversion, the time he was stopped for trying to take a gun on a plane, the other time he was stopped for trying to take a gun on a plane.

Now add allegations of insider trading to the list. Cawthorn is accused of pumping and dumping a “Let’s Go Brandon!” cryptocurrency and faces calls for investigations from the House Ethics Committee. As Cockburn notes, “Cawthorn can save American politics by keeping up with his clownery, which is bringing both sides together in their mutual distaste for this political piñata, stuffed full of daft commentary and foolhardy conduct.”

What you should be reading today

Matt Purple: Springtime for Cold War nostalgics
Casey Chalk: How ‘defund the police’ hurt the black community
Bill Zeiser: The left’s great Twitter evacuation
Jonah Goldberg, the Dispatch: The enduring cognitive dissonance of the American left
Karl Rove, Wall Street Journal: How badly will the Democrats lose the midterms?
Philip Wegmann, RealClearPolitics: Biden promised Harris lunch every week. They’ve had two

Poll watch

President Biden Job Approval
Approve: 41.1 percent
Disapprove: 54.0 percent
Net approval: -12.9 (RCP Average)

Is the country heading in the right direction?
Right direction: 32 percent
Wrong direction: 68 percent (Reno Journal-Gazette/Suffolk)

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