sound off


The debate over free speech deserves a better subject than Steven Crowder

The YouTube firebrand is offensive, sure, but he’s also fundamentally banal.

It is a sign of how internet-addled we’ve all become that I immediately knew who Steven Crowder was when news of his sorta-kinda deplatforming on YouTube hit my news feed in early June, even though I had never watched a second of his content. Rather, I knew him because he was made fun of on Chapo Trap House, the popular leftist podcast, on which he is a minor character in the hosts’ vast bestiary of blubbering conservative villainy. I assumed he was just one more internet character whose significance was blown out of proportion by the raw numbers of his online following.

Crowder, the host of a YouTube show — program? Series? happening? — called, very accurately, Louder with Crowder, is the latest in a growing line of conservative celebrities and B-listers, from Milo Yiannopolous to Richard Spencer, who have found themselves either outrightly banned from social media platforms or, as is the case with Crowder, prohibited from making money off them. Defenders of absolute free speech, from the professional provocateurs of the right to left-libertarian commenters like Glenn Greenwald denounce these as assaults on free speech and warn of dire consequences if we permit monopolistic corporations like Google and Facebook to police speech in what have become, effectively, public forums.

The Crowder brouhaha gets somewhat obscure, so bear with me. Crowder had, in late May and early June, attracted the ire of censorious online liberals and leftists for repeatedly mocking Vox Media personality Carlos Maza, calling him, among other middle-school insults, “Mr. Lispy Queer from Vox,” and, in a more puckish turn, “the gay Vox sprite.” I’m not sure what I expected when I popped in to watch a few of his videos — I suppose some kind of braying nincompoop in the style of one of the pinkish cardiac cases who appear on ESPN talk shows.

In fact, Crowder, who is 31 and as a child voiced a character on the show Arthur, turns out to be quite campy. Like Donald Trump, he has a repeating set of quite dainty hand gestures. His voice is nasal and a bit high-pitched, and if he does not have a lisp, he is at least lisp-adjacent. He mugs and makes great faces of comic incredulity pitched to the last row of the opera house. These are all characteristics common to engaging entertainers, but it does make his pointed, homophobic mockery of Maza’s physical and vocal mannerisms a bit ironic.

The desire to deal with the censor’s power in the abstract rather than the actual is the greatest weakness of free-speech advocacy today.

Crowder is offensive, but fundamentally banal. There is a certain jocular appeal. I can see how he might serve, to a lost young man or an addlepated frat boy steeped in a culture of misogyny and performative masculinity, as an easy-to-swallow sip of a much stronger reactionary brew. He casts the effort to silence him — it succeeded in demonetizing his channel, but failed to get it removed — as a failed effort by weaker-willed losers, but there is an edge of panic in his triumphalism. This is, after all, his job.

I don’t share free-speech advocates’ terror of the slippery slope. The argument — that corporations, like governments, thus empowered to censor expression, will inevitably also use those powers against the weak and underrepresented, against political radicals and dissidents, against the left — almost always uses the wrong verb tense, since so many of these voices are already censored and suppressed. This is the same attitude that valorizes defense of the free expression of the most odious forms of political extremism, Nazism and white supremacy, as the highest moral order: I may not agree with a word you say, but I will defend to your death the right to say it, and other such clichés.

But we live in a society in which armed police escort Nazis to gay pride festivals but attack and arrest black people just about any time they engage in protest and their Constitutional right to legal assembly. The desire to deal with the censor’s power in the abstract rather than the actual is the greatest weakness of free-speech advocacy today.

But, while the moral panic over censorship, deplatforming, and so-called cancel culture is vastly overblown, the determination of social-justice left-liberalism to make social-media hate speech a central axis of resistance to the rise of fascism, the “alt-Right,” and even garden-variety reactionary conservatism, is pretty silly. Crowder losing his YouTube paycheck, Alex Jones sinking deeper into his fever dream, or Milo descending into bankruptcy and becoming so anonymously irrelevant that he barely notes a milkshaking is in each case funny and good, but in no case morally necessary or practically useful.

At its most basic, the desire to purge these voices from media platforms is not about hurt feelings, nor about threats or harassment, which most proponents of deplatforming seem to view correctly as symptomatic of a deeper ill. The trouble is that too often the diagnosis of that illness stops too early. Advocates of online censorship too often seem to operate from the belief, which has now definitively cracked into mainstream culture with a major New York Times exposé, that this speech represents a kind of contagion, that “online hate speech” infects and perverts minds, that it is a gateway to the far right and, in the worst cases, to violence.

The determination of social-justice left-liberalism to make social-media hate speech a central axis of resistance is pretty silly.

I don’t discount the amplifying effects of the internet on what might previously have been marginal voices shouting on street corners or cracking racist jokes from a lonely barstool, but I wonder that so many are so eager to accept the exculpatory fantasy that the internet itself produced this fraught political moment. Fascism emerged with modernity, and violent white supremacy is both older than America and quite literally written into its foundational documents. Figures like Hitler and Mussolini were immensely aided in their rise in the 20th century by mastery of public spectacle and the emerging mass media of radio and film (as well as the stogy old mass media of print), but these do not explain them, nor do they explain the political movements that both produced and followed them. American racial terrorism did not require a Twitter account.

The reactionary tendency in American politics runs very deep. America has also been continuously at war for 20 years. (It is probably even accurate to say America has never stopped being at war since the ‘40s!) Until the advent of President Donald Trump, the universal caveat was to say, however, that we were “not at war with Islam.” Now, we barely bother. He’s made it perfectly clear. Of course we are. The dark foreign adversary, already a standard of American pop culture, has proliferated. Popular television and movies celebrated torture. The calm, measured, professorial President Obama likely ordered the assassination of the American-born, 16-year-old Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, although the military claimed this was merely “collateral damage,” a chilling euphemistic phrase straight out of any midcentury authoritarian regime.

Meanwhile, corporate power has consolidated beyond any dream of avarice, and the same companies we appeal to to stamp out hateful speech are chillingly omnipresent and trap most of us by daily necessity into a terrifying panopticon, scrutinizing our every like and purchase, listening in on every word we say, observing video of the people who come to our front doors, even monitoring our heart-rates and sleep cycles. And while it is in a sense comforting to imagine that our young men are finding their way via some sort of impersonal algorithm to the vilest content on the internet, the truth is that it is obviously part of a deliberate content-marketing strategy, and the most accurate description of personalities like Steven Crowder is that he was an employee of YouTube who got his pay docked.

Out of this dystopic nightmare of violent, militaristic corporate oligarchy, is it surprising that the fascist tendency is again on the rise? Does the internet make it worse, or merely more ubiquitously visible? Probably both. But in any case, it will require a great mass political movement. We can’t do it by posting. We can’t debate. And we can’t win by getting a few dumb comedians fired.

Jacob Bacharach is a contributing writer at The Outline.