Vol. 54: Free speech for Nazis?
Found: A solution for online hate
Substack— the online platform that has enabled me to send you this weekly “Contrarian’s Notebook,” hassle-free and cost-free, for the past year— was attacked last month for providing the same service to Nazis and white supremacists. How do you feel about that?
You’re OK with it? You wouldn’t deny Nazis the right to use Substack any more than you would deny them, say, the right to use a smartphone or email?
OK, let’s take the argument a step further. Most Substack columns, unlike mine, charge readers a subscription fee— say, maybe $5 a month. At that rate, a columnist with a thousand subscribers can gross $60,000 a year— and some Substack columnists reach much larger paying audiences. Out of that gross dollar figure, Substack takes a 10% cut as its service fee. That’s how Substack supports its operations. But if some of Substack’s columnists are Nazis, and if Substack takes 10% of their proceeds, some people would argue that Substack has an incentive to circulate Nazi propaganda.
I personally don’t buy this logic. Substack, founded in 2017 (and discovered by me barely a year ago), is a unique online platform that allows writers (like me) to send digital newsletters directly to subscribers (like you). Unlike other social media like Facebook and X (formerly Twitter), Substack is not really one platform but thousands of individualized platforms with unique and curated cultures.
Facebook has tried to “moderate” and fact-check hate speech to no avail, and Twitter’s moderators have actively suppressed posts that might sway a forthcoming election, among other snags. Substack subscribers, by contrast, receive only the newsletters they sign up for, so it’s unlikely that they will receive hateful content unless they ask for it.
Nevertheless, last month more than 200 Substack authors took the platform to task for “platforming and monetizing Nazis.” They wrote their letter after The Atlantic revealed that maybe a dozen Substack publications sport “overt Nazi symbols” in their logos, while some other Substack columns support Nazi and white nationalist views.
Substack’s co-founder Hamish Mackenzie responded that Substack would resist the temptation to censor content on its platform. “We believe that supporting individual rights and civil liberties while subjecting ideas to open discourse is the best way to strip bad ideas of their power,” he said, sounding pretty much like me.
Meanwhile, some 100 other Substack writers wrote a letter supporting the company. because, they said, Substack “has come up with the best solution yet for hateful content on the Internet: Give writers and readers the freedom of speech without surfacing that speech to the masses.”
Massage parlors and phone sex
To an old free-speech warrior like me, this controversy sounds familiar. Maybe too familiar. The Welcomat, the Philadelphia alternative weekly paper that I edited from 1981 to 1993, was an innovative forum for free-wheeling opinions, no matter how offensive people might find them. So-called responsible citizens often exhorted me to “live up to your civic responsibility” and behave as “a socially conscious and aware organization” (these are actual quotes). They could see through hateful ideas, they insisted, but they worried about how such ideas would mislead everybody else.
(In all my years as a media critic, only once have I encountered someone who felt deceived by the media: a woman who said the New York Times had misled her in 2016 into assuming that Hillary Clinton’s election was a sure thing.)
When I waved the banner of free speech at such critics, invariably they replied, “I believe in free speech, but only if it’s responsible,” or “I believe in free speech, but not in these troubled times,” or “I believe in free speech, but not on the front page.” So now they are saying, “I believe in free speech, but not on the Internet.”
The Welcomat’s noble experiment in free speech coexisted with sleazy ads for massage parlors, escort services, pornographic peepshows, and telephone sex stuffed into our back pages. As I explained to readers who periodically objected— including my own rabbi— my position on this issue was firmly ambivalent. On the one hand, I was uncomfortable about seeing my deathless prose sharing space with “Daddy’s Girl” and “Hot Chicks One-on-One.” The only thing I found more objectionable than smutty ads, as I put it to one complaining reader, was “busybodies who presume to tell other people what they can and cannot read or publish… Once you decide to silence objectionable ads, where do you draw the line?”
Today I would ask: If you want to censor objectionable content online, whom would you choose to do the censoring? Elon Musk? Mark Zuckerberg? Donald Trump?
Defending Amy Wax
To the late New York Times columnist Anthony Lewis, the First Amendment is above all about “Freedom For the Thought That We Hate”— a noble ideal, to be sure. But to me, it’s above all about my selfish right (and yours) to read and listen to whomever we damn please and reach our own conclusions, without interference from meddlers who think they know what’s best for us.
“Bad speech”— Hitler’s Mein Kampf, say—can serve as an early warning system against bigots and sexists by exposing their ideas to the light instead of permitting them to fester underground. When we silence offensive voices, we’re really shutting ourselves out.
My very first Substack column, in January 2023, defended free speech for Amy Wax, the ditzy Penn law professor who insisted on airing her ludicrous resentments against blacks, Latinos, Asians, and Indians. How, I asked then, can we know this woman is a ditz if she keeps her ditzy ideas to herself?
A 500-year-old remedy
So how, you ask, would I respond to those Substack writers who don’t want any part of Nazis or white supremacists? Something like this:
You are free to move to another platform, just as Welcomat writers and readers were free to find other outlets. But Substack has come up with the best solution so far to hate speech on the Internet. If you want to pressure Substack to decide who can say what, and who can use the platform, then you’re causing far more damage to freedom of thought than most Nazis could cause.
Sooner or later, some creative hacker will find a way to game Substack’s system. Until then, the best remedy for bad speech will remain: Develop a healthy sense of skepticism. Don’t believe everything you read or hear. Tell your friends. In other words, do just what humans learned to do after Gutenberg terrified the world by inventing movable type 500 years ago:
Henny Youngman’s logic
I launched this Substack column a year ago primarily as a means of conversing with a small circle of friends, colleagues, and relatives. (OK—maybe also as tool for promoting my recently published memoir, The Education of a Journalist.) Since then, the column’s audience has grown steadily, largely by word of mouth. Today this “Contrarian’s Notebook” reaches more than 1,100 subscribers, who pay nothing to receive it. I’ve resisted charging a subscription fee— at least so far— because I don’t want to feel beholden to anyone when I’m expressing my views. Besides, as Henny Youngman put it, I have all the money I’ll ever need (as long as I die before a week from Thursday at 4 p.m.).
You could argue with some justification that I’m exploiting Substack, which has yet to receive a dime from me. Or you argue that I’m beholden to Substack, which in turn is beholden to Nazis, and that therefore….
Come to think of it, did you know that Hitler was a vegetarian? And while he made some mistakes, he was right about building the autobahns. I mean, nobody’s perfect. Why won’t the media cut him a break?
Enjoy Dan Rottenberg’s new memoir, The Education of a Journalist: My Seventy Years on the Frontiers of Free Speech. You can also visit his website at www.danrottenberg.com
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