Remember when it was the Right that wanted to get into your bedroom and shut down dissent? Good times, good times, Rolling Stone editor Matt Taibbi writes at his eponymous website. Taibbi overstates the historical case on the Right — somewhat, anyway — but he nails the case on the Left as woke scolds and progressive authoritarians.
Mostly, though, Taibbi wonders why the same media that ridiculed and marginalized conservatives over those tactics haven’t done the same with progressives. Who wants to tell him?
Fifteen years later, America is a thousand Dovers, and the press response is silence. This time it’s not a few Podunk school boards under assault by junk science and crackpot theologies, but Princeton University, the New York Times, the Smithsonian, and a hundred other institutions.
When the absurdity factor rocketed past Dover levels this week, the nation’s leading press organs barely commented, much less laughed. Doing so would have meant opening the floodgates on a story most everyone in media sees but no one is allowed to comment upon: that the political right and left in America have traded villainous cultural pathologies. Things we once despised about the right have been amplified a thousand-fold on the flip.
Conservatives once tried to legislate what went on in your bedroom; now it’s the left that obsesses over sexual codicils, not just for the bedroom but everywhere. Right-wingers from time to time made headlines campaigning against everything from The Last Temptation of Christ to “Fuck the Police,” though we laughed at the idea that Ice Cube made cops literally unsafe, and it was understood an artist had to do something fairly ambitious, like piss on a crucifix in public, to get conservative protesters off their couches.
Today Matt Yglesias signing a group letter with Noam Chomsky is considered threatening. Moreover a lot less than booking a Robert Mapplethorpe exhibit can get you in the soup – a headline, a retweet, even likes are costing people jobs. Imagine how many movies Milos Forman would have had to make if Jerry Falwell had been able to get people fired this easily.
Did the same impulses exist on the Right at times? Sure, but there was a big difference then (and now). The media at that point made itself into the defender of First Amendment civil liberties on the basis that free speech mattered. For an example of this, watch Forman’s film The People vs Larry Flynt, which turned a nutcase pornographer into a free-speech hero — and not altogether without merit. Falwell’s lawsuit would have had a devastating impact on criticism of public figures, even if one had sympathy for his reason for suing Flynt in the first place.
Actually, if you do decide to watch the film, be warned that it earns every bit of its R rating for language, violence, and sexual content. There is a great deal of scenery chewing from nearly everyone except Edward Norton, and no small end of Flynt’s bizarre political thoughts, but the case is interesting enough to make the film worth a watch, if you’re inclined to forgive the melodramatics. That’s your choice, as it should be.
It’s also worth noting that voices on the Right did speak out against the authoritarian impulses, and those weren’t all Left/Right issues even then. Taibbi seems to forget about Tipper Gore’s crusade against violent video games back in those times. He also conveniently forgets that the campaign against The Last Temptation of Christ came mainly from the Catholic Church, which is hardly a member of the Right except on abortion. (Or that Martin Scorcese wisely played it up to boost ticket sales, and succeeded.) Those impulses on the Right got checked by groups within its coalition as well as aggressive pushback by the media and cultural establishment.
Contrast that with the current environment, and it’s very difficult-to-well-nigh-impossible to conclude that the media’s treatment of those impulses were principled. Instead, it just looks like they were unhappy that the wrong side was in position to apply them. Taibbi comes close to grasping this but argues that the difference was that the Right “was too stupid to rule.” However, he then spends quite a bit of time ridiculing the Left’s recent stupidities, including that idiotic Smithsonian Institute graphic on “whiteness,” but fails to recognize the parallels — and the key difference. One side had the cultural and media establishment arrayed against them, and sent reporters like Taibbi to expose and ridicule its extremes; the other side has assimilated the cultural and media establishment into its movement. And now that side has finally achieved some cultural supremacy and wants to use it to give full rein to its authoritarian impulses, and the media won’t report on it because they are part of the effort.
Be sure to read it all. And keep an eye on Taibbi’s website; even when I disagree with his position, he usually has an intriguing argument. We’ll see how long he can offer those until the authoritarians come knocking.