Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photo: David Levenson/Getty Images
the national interest

What Jonathan Franzen and the Left Get Wrong About Free Speech

Don’t wait for an emergency to criticize dangerous ideas by your allies.

Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photo: David Levenson/Getty Images

Novelist Jonathan Franzen, in an interview with the Wall Street Journal, explained why he refused to sign a letter to Harper’s defending free speech norms from the left. “There’s a chilling of nuanced discourse …” he conceded, “but I also think, until people start being sent off to Lubyanka for having said the wrong thing to the wrong person, the risk is probably overblown.”

Franzen’s line has drawn fawning praise on the left. It is one of the most insane yet simultaneously revealing statements I have ever seen.

Franzen’s position is a common one among liberal intellectuals: He concedes the threat to free speech norms on the left is real, but insists it is too insignificant to merit criticism. Obviously, different problems have different scales. Treating illiberal norms on the left as the single greatest crisis in the world strikes me as an overreaction, especially given the Republican Party’s institutional descent into outright authoritarianism.

But Franzen isn’t merely cautioning against overreaction. He is not arguing that left-wing illiberalism is too small a crisis to merit fleeing the country in panic, or voting Republican, or even writing an op-ed against it. He is arguing that left-wing illiberalism is too small a problem to merit even the meager step of signing a letter somebody else wrote for him.

Franzen’s position, a common one on the left, implicitly concedes that there could be a point at which the problem grows to a level that it does merit criticism. Usually, that point is left unstated. Franzen takes the clarifying step of making that level explicit: when “people start being sent off to Lubyanka” — the headquarters of the Soviet secret police — “for having said the wrong thing to the wrong person.”

I would suggest that, once we have gotten to, or anywhere near, the point at which stray comments result in abduction, torture and execution, it will be a bit late to speak out. Yet that is apparently the point at which Franzen is willing to start complaining publicly. I’ll take Franzen at his word that he is personally willing to brave a bullet to the head, which makes him far braver than me, but I find it very strange that he considers any critique of the illiberal left before it’s carrying out mass murder premature.

Franzen’s mind seems to have particular difficulty calibrating and ordering multiple problems; the same befuddlement once inspired him to argue that environmentalists should focus on saving birds because mitigating climate change is hopeless. But his candid answer to the Journal, and the praise (rather than embarrassed silence) it has drawn on the anti-anti-PC left, exposes an all-too-common tendency by the mainstream left to shrink away from open criticism of the far left.

A far more nuanced and intelligent version of this all-too-common position comes from Michelle Goldberg. I should state right at the outset that Goldberg is not an anti-anti-PCnik. She has criticized illiberalism on the left, and she is one of the writers I most admire. I’m bracketing the argument she makes in her recent New York Times column because it sits on the opposite end of the spectrum of sophistication. She is making the smartest version of the critique Franzen gestured at so crudely.

Goldberg offers some well-taken points about exaggerated denunciations of left-wing illiberalism. The nature of public opinion is such that every problem, including the most serious ones in the world (climate change, right-wing authoritarianism, economic inequality), will inspire some people to overreact. Identifying those overreactions is necessary to maintain rigorous thinking.

But Goldberg’s corrective veers into a strange complacency. She begins with an example of a fictional story line from the Netflix series The Chair, in which a professor loses his job for giving a mock Nazi salute. “Few instances of real-life cancellations are so factually simple or ethically ridiculous,” she claims. I have seen many real-life episodes that are more ridiculous than this fictional episode. Here is a case of a UCLA professor sanctioned for a lecture in which he “read from Martin Luther King Jr.’s ‘Letter From a Birmingham Jail’ and showed clips from a documentary that included graphic descriptions and images of lynchings,” causing “distress and anger” over the depiction of racist language and violence. Here is a story of a Chinese-language professor suspended for using a Chinese word that sounds like an English racial slur.

She further contends that the amount of ideological policing on campus is not as large as we may think. Quoting a statistic tabulating 426 scholars being targeted for sanctions over their political views since 2015, she declares the number relatively small, describing the problem as “effectively solved.”

To see how inadequate this number is for measuring the problem at hand, let me revisit a matter I reported out a year ago. In 2020, Civis Analytics, a Democratic Party–affiliated data firm, fired one of its number crunchers named David Shor. Shor’s offense was violating a progressive taboo against criticizing violent or destructive acts associated with left-wing protests. He violated the taboo in the mildest way, by sharing a study by Princeton professor Omar Wasow. Nonetheless, Shor’s colleagues complained that his tweet was racist, and the pressure led to his firing.

This episode would not be one of the mere 426 cases Goldberg cites, because it took place outside of academia. Even if it had occurred within a university, it probably wouldn’t have made the list but for the fact that I heard whispers about it and reported out the case. In this instance, and many others I have heard about, neither party has any interest in publicizing the matter. The canceler isn’t going to send out a press release boasting that they purged a dissident, and the cancelee typically feels humiliated and has no interest in becoming lionized by Fox News.

More significant were the broader reverberations Shor’s firing made within the community. A listserv that functioned as a professional networking space for the progressive data community banned Shor after his firing. When a handful of his colleagues criticized this measure, they too were labeled as racist by the list’s moderators. Many others kept quiet out of fear that they would suffer the same treatment if they spoke up.

If you kept a running total of ideological firings in the progressive data space, the number would have been one (or, more likely, zero if the story hadn’t fallen into my lap). But the chilling effect it had on the community seems to be much broader and deeper. It’s a change to the climate of opinion that is difficult to capture in empirical terms, but can be very real nonetheless.

Goldberg mocks analogies to Mao and Stalin that infuse denunciations of left-wing cancel culture. And that is fair enough as far as it goes. The illiberal left’s power cannot and will not resemble a 20th-century totalitarian horror, because it lacks state power. The power to get somebody shamed, fired, or banished from their community stops well short of imprisonment, which requires the coercive power of government that the left is barely even seeking.

But the rational version of the fear has never been Stalinism. It is what these illiberal norms will do to progressive institutions.

Here is another case that indicates the problem in a way that no body-count index could capture. The Urban Institute, a respected center-left think tank, has published a new guide* to “equitable research.” The guide explains that concepts like objectivity and rigor are “harmful”:

Photo: Urban Institute

You can try to sanewash these claims as merely urging researchers to examine their own biases and try to include the perspectives of people outside the research community. But that would require a willful misreading of a document that all but declares research has to affirm a left-wing perspective. “Racism, sexism, classism, and ableism permeate US institutions and systems,” and that equitable work “requires a shift in researchers’ mentality on the values and practices of research and deep questioning of the status quo.” As an example, it suggests, “in a participatory project on policing, the people who are policed—not the police—are the experts to include.” The guide doesn’t allow for any circumstances in which the views of police officers would be worth studying.

If I were a researcher at the Urban Institute, an organization whose work I’ve relied on for years, it would be impossible to read this guidance as anything but a warning that any work produced that challenges the left (i.e., bolsters “the status quo”) is liable to get you ruinously accused of committing a long list of -isms. It’s possible Urban will revise or pull down this document, or at least permit its staff to ignore it. It’s also possible it will become a guiding dogma that turns a respected think tank into a source of progressive agitprop.

The question depends on the choices made by those who disagree with it. People at institutions like Urban are facing choices like this all the time. Goldberg is right to caution them to critically examine their own biases before leaping to hysterical conclusions. Changing institutions that have usually been led by white men so that other people feel like true social equals is not always easy or pretty. Sometimes what looks at first like a repressive mob is merely changing social norms.

But many times the urge to go along with illiberal ideas is not high principle at all. The taboo against breaking ranks with one’s friends and political allies has never been more powerful. The impulse to downplay abuses by one’s own side for fear of giving ammunition to the enemy is not exclusive to the political right.

Goldberg argues that while ideological coercion in progressive institutions may be a source of personal anguish, it doesn’t constitute a “political emergency.” That depends on how people in those institutions respond. If they push back on illiberalism, this will all be a passing fad. If they stand pat and allow academia, journalism, large chunks of the nonprofit world, and other outposts of progressive thought to adopt norms that make it impossible to question unfounded ideas, then the emergency will eventually arrive.

*Update: The Urban Institute emails, “The Urban Institute publication you referenced is a blog post, not a guide. We have added some language to the top of the post in an effort to make this distinction more clear.” This seems to indicate, encouragingly, that the pushback was strong enough to force Urban to present this piece as a single person’s perspective, rather than an institutional statement.

What Jonathan Franzen and the Left Get Wrong on Free Speech