Making Rods For Their Own Backs

My latest for Whale Oil blog

Purveyors of narrow-minded identity politics fail to grasp the strength of truly liberal democracies, which is that their laws and institutions are crafted for the benefit and protection of everybody. Groups who, when in power, shape political weapons to bully and harass their opponents into submission are invariably dismayed when shifting political tides suddenly mean that those same weapons are turned against them.

Today’s left are foolishly shaping a set of political weapons that may one day hurt them very much indeed.

Only a fool assumes they’ll always hold the reigns of power. As the November elections showed, the left in America have lost political clout to a degree not seen in generations, and worse is probably yet to come. A shifting media landscape and rising consumer boycotts may also threaten the left’s stranglehold on the media. If – or more likely, when – they do, then the left will suddenly find, to their shock, that the weapons they have been using to bully and silence conservatives will be turned against them. And where, as Robert Bolt wrote in A Man For All Seasons, will they turn, all the laws having been cut down and flattened? Who will protect them then?

This is a lesson that conservatives have learned – or should have – from bitter experience. Some of the most potent weapons wielded by the left in recent years in the Culture Wars were first developed by the right in the 1980s. With Reagan and Thatcher ascendant, conservatives seemed secure in power. Happily inventing new ways to intimidate their ideological opponents, the right apparently never dreamed that their own weapons would be turned against them.

One of the most despised tactics used by the left today is what Gavin McInnes calls economic terrorism: “harassing employers, getting people fired”. He’s right: it’s an odious tactic, which slithers all over the First Amendment in one, big, insidious heckler’s veto. But it was perfected by the right in the 1980s.

Back in the 80s, it was the Moral Majority and the PMRC going after punk rockers like the Dead Kennedys, and pressuring Walmart and NBC. The tactics were slightly different (there being no such thing as social media, for a start), but the broad strategy was the same, and so were the results: harass, sue and bully their ideological opponents into silence. It worked spectacularly, as Dee Snyder of Twisted Sister remembers: “Our First Amendment constitutional right to freedom of speech had been eroded, yet the average record buyer was apathetic”.

Small wonder the left picked up this potent weapon in their turn, and wielded it with enthusiasm.

But they didn’t stop there. As Reason’s Nick Gillespie points out, thanks to Obama’s steady arrogation of power to the Executive over eight years, Democrats have handed the Trump administration unprecedented powers. Instead of “exhorting Obama to act ‘unilaterally’ and ‘without Congress’ on terrorism, immigration, guns, and whatever”, Gillespie says, the left might have done better to consider the possibility that one day they just might lose office – and then what?

Even the bad excuse that Obama had no choice because of obstructionist Republicans holds no water – because, as we already see, Trump can make the same excuse, in spades.

Having learned nothing from their previous mistakes, the left are still, without perhaps even realizing it, assiduously developing even more devastating weapons that can be turned against them.

The Mann-Steyn defamation case is grinding its tortuous way through the Washington legal system, but it recently passed a significant hurdle when judge Vanessa Ruiz ruled that the suit could proceed. The general consensus (for they do love a “consensus”) on the left seems to be that this is all to the good – putting the wicked “deniers” in their place. But more astute minds are tumbling to the potential disastrous consequences if Mann’s suit actually succeeds.

As David Neese points out, leaving aside the actual merit (or otherwise) of his claim, if Mann establishes a precedent that even hyperbolic opinions expressed in political arguments are not necessarily protected by the First Amendment, it would be toxic for free speech, and a potential political catastrophe for the left especially. As Neese says, “if you call a Trump-like personage a Nazi or a racist or a xenophobe, you’d better damn well be prepared to spend boatloads of money defending yourself in court”.

Because he’ll have both the money and the motivation.

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