Tom Cotton and the censorship thing

As I mentioned last Thursday, Sen. Tom Cotton got to pen a column in the New York Times calling for the government to send troops out to kill the liberals and the filthy mongrel hordes (okay that last bit was more my interpretation). Even a lot of the Times staff think the paper made a bad call publishing it — especially since they solicited the column rather than Cotton coming to them. Unsurprisingly, conservatives (including some on the NYT staff) have supported the paper; at LGM, Paul Campos dissects why their arguments don’t hold up. In this column, I add some of my own thoughts (which are not altered by opinion page chief James Bennett falling on his sword).

The concept of “censorship” includes both “the government prevented me publishing this” which is a First Amendment issue and “a private company won’t publish my book/put me on the air/let me speak at their events” which is not.

It’s true that the  latter may have the same effect as government censorship. In the pre-Amazon days, if only bookstore in town refused to order books it considers offensive (e.g. anti-Christian, pro-gay, too sexist, presents statutory rape as fun) there might be no easy way for most people to get them. If the local paper refuses to print columns on a particular viewpoint, that suppresses the discussion. But in both cases, the company’s within its rights to do so. That’s why people don’t go to Christian bookstore (unless they’re trolling) and demand they order The Satanic Bible. It’s why novelists don’t scream censorship because specfic publishers such as DAW books or Falstaff books isn’t interested in their mainstream non-specfic novel. It’s the company’s call.

That’s not to say the standards are good or that we have no right to criticize or push them to change. Eight years ago, a newspaper publisher refused to let his movie critic review Snow White and the Huntsman on the grounds any movie with a female hero is anti-male, a deliberate attempt to deny men a heroic role model. He’s within his rights to make that call, but it’s a stupid, sexist decision.

That said, the decision is often justified. I’m cool with bookstores not putting pro-pedophilia books on their shelves or newspapers running op-eds on why we need to kill all the Jews. A good editorial page should have better arguments than a Facebook political debate and curating and selecting is part of that. Plus there’s only so much space on the Times’ editorial page; someone has to decide what gets in and what gets out. And most people defending the Times would agree that’s appropriate; the NYT’s Bari Weiss talks a lot about free speech but only in the sense that equates criticism of conservatives with thought policing; she’s considerably less tolerant of anti-Israel views. It’s not that she doesn’t believe in red lines for what’s acceptable speech, it’s just that Cotton doesn’t trigger them.

And last but hardly least, we are not living in the pre-Amazon, pre-Internet days. We don’t need the NYT to give us Cotton’s views; he’s on Twitter. Antisemites, neoNazis and white supremacists can air their views on YouTube, publish books through Kindle or their websites and do podcasts. There are no gatekeepers the way there were 40 years ago.

Cotton getting to write for the NYT is a matter of prestige (and also getting professional editing). It automatically gives Cotton a standing that blogging on WordPress doesn’t, nor appearing in any of the countless right-wing publications. It’s the same logic by which conservatives forever whine that there aren’t any conservative movies, TV shows, etc.; the Christian conservative market is a booming business that offers them exactly that, but it’s not going to command the attention or critical interest that a mainstream Hollywood production does. Likewise, if Trump doesn’t like the way Twitter treats him he could jump to another platform. Conservatives have launched several unsuccessful social media but if Trump were on one, they’d undoubtedly do better. However it wouldn’t have the status of Twitter or the same audience of pundits and politicians.

If the NYT had not reached out to Cotton, it would not have hurt the senator’s free-speech rights in the least. Or the country’s.

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