One of my first journalism awards sits atop the desk in my basement office collecting dust.
It’s from the Colorado Library Association, and it was given to me for battling censorship. I was editor of a weekly newspaper in Evergreen, Colorado, when a group of local parents convinced the principal of my children’s elementary school to pull several books off the library shelves.
This was real subversive material: Judy Blume, R.L. Stine, J.R.R. Tolkien and the like. It was classic censorship, the government using taxpayer dollars to tell Americans what their children can and cannot read. Making the situation even worse: the books were in a special “young adult” section in which sixth graders had to seek parental permission to check the books out from the library. I wrote columns and editorials opposed to the censorship. Parents wrote letters to the school board. The good guys won, and the books were put back on the shelf.
I thought about that incident recently as U.S. Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri, and other like-minded Republicans, have been on a misguided campaign to change the meaning of the word: censorship, which is, and always has been, about government suppression. Hawley and his fellow travelers are mad at Twitter and Facebook for “censoring” misinformation before Tuesday’s election.
On Friday, the acting director of the Department of Homeland Security, Chad Wolf, took the ruse even further, after Twitter had, for a period, suspended the social media account of one of Wolf’s employees. Wolf wrote Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, a St. Louis native, and asked him to “commit to never again censoring content on your platform.”
Here’s the problem: Dorsey hasn’t censored anybody. Dorsey can’t censor anybody. He’s the CEO of a private company that has every right under our American capitalist system to decide who can and cannot publish on his platform. That’s not censorship. It’s business.
In fact, it happens in my business every day. I have an editor. She changes my columns after I submit them. I have, on occasion, submitted a column that hasn’t been published. That’s not censorship. It’s editing.
Hawley, a graduate of elite universities — Stanford on the West Coast and Yale on the East Coast — knows this, of course. Wolf probably does, too, though he puts children in cages and separates them from their families, so I’m not so sure about his capacity for learning. He used a form of the word “censor” 13 times in his two-page letter to Dorsey.
This is my wish for after Tuesday’s election: I want words to matter again. No matter who wins, no matter whose side you’re on, words, and their meaning, should matter.
Take socialism. If you’ve been paying attention to the election, you know that part of the Republican strategy these days is to call every Democrat a socialist and accuse every policy they support of being socialism. It’s a ruse, and Hawley is the perfect example. He wanted to subpoena Dorsey and his counterpart at Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg, to testify before the judiciary committee about their alleged “censorship” of right-wing disinformation ahead of the election. Hawley didn’t get his way, of course, because he’s not actually that popular with his fellow senators, who know the most dangerous place in Washington, D.C., is the space between Hawley and a television camera. The tech giants did testify last week before the Senate commerce committee.
The problem isn’t that Big Tech hasn’t made mistakes. Just look at the daily list of top 10 posts shared on Facebook, and it’s a plethora of propaganda from paid Republican operatives. But what Hawley wants to do — use government regulation to rein in the ability of private companies to determine how they make their money — is, indeed, a form of socialism.
That doesn’t make Hawley a socialist anymore than it makes Dorsey a censor. If endorsing anything that mimics socialist philosophies makes one a socialist, then every single member of Congress who supports Social Security and Medicare and Medicaid is a socialist. So is every single professional sports team owner, from the NFL to the MLS, as they pool money from individually owned teams for the collective good.
Words like socialism and censorship lose all meaning when political operatives — in this case Republicans — use them as a wedge to falsely hit their opponents instead of applying them to public policy in a consistent manner, regardless of political party.
Maybe that’s the point. As the acting director of the Department of Homeland Security cries wolf before the 2020 election, he and his cohorts are just signaling the disinformation that is to come.
From City Hall to the Capitol, metro columnist Tony Messenger shines light on what public officials are doing, tells stories of the disaffected, and brings voice to the issues that matter.