Capitol Chaos, Slippery Slopes, and Josh Hawley's Book

January 10, 2021  —  Tagged as: politics, free-speech

In the half-year or so since I’ve started this blog, I’ve taken a lot of opportunities to criticize the woke left. Now it’s the delusional right’s turn. The blog is called bibliocentrist, after all. Some might ask why I don’t have a more even distribution of coverage of left and right-wing bullshit, and the answer is simple. For one, this blog is primarily about politics as they relate to the book world, and the right wing just doesn’t have enough influence in literary culture to enforce much nonsense. Long gone are the days when they made headlines banning Harry Potter (oh, how the tables have turned) for witchcraft. When it comes to book communities, at least in the popular online spaces, the left has a monopoly on influence. Which brings me to the other reason why you might find my critiques slightly skewed towards the left: I already see critiques of the right everywhere, so I don’t feel as pressing a need to repeat them. When the right does wrong, everyone and their grandmother are posting and meming about it. When the left does wrong, we get excuses, rhetoric, and In Defense of Looting. So I feel more compelled to disagree and attempt to inject nuance.

Don’t think, however, that my dislike of the woke left means I’m any more amicable towards the delusional right. And this week’s debacle in DC was a perfect example of why. Today’s topic is not strictly book-related, but it’s important. We’ll also cover the argument surrounding the nixed publication of a book about Big Tech by pro-Trump Senator Josh Hawley, and the real-world debate underlying the book’s premise.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you know that a Trump rally in DC turned into protests around the Capitol and ultimately escalated into a full-on riot, with a number of Trump supporters storming the building as legislators inside prepared to certify electoral votes. Trump had just finished speaking to the crowd at his rally, where he ranted that the election had been stolen, that those who would certify the votes were weak, that his supporters had to “fight,” and other things along these lines (emphasis mine):

We’re going walk down to the Capitol, and we’re going to cheer on our brave senators, and congressmen and women. We’re probably not going to be cheering so much for some of them because you’ll never take back our country with weakness. You have to show strength, and you have to be strong.

You’re not going to have a Republican party if you don’t get tougher. They want to play so straight, they want to play so, “Sir, yes, the United States, the constitution doesn’t allow me to send them back to the States.” Well, I say, “Yes, it does because the constitution says you have to protect our country and you have to protect our constitution and you can’t vote on fraud,” and fraud breaks up everything, doesn’t it? When you catch somebody in a fraud, you’re allowed to go by very different rules.

At Trump’s urging, rally-goers then marched on the Capitol. It’s worth noting that he did mention “peaceful” demonstration at one point in his speech, and some of the protesters did remain peaceful. Others, however, took his more inflammatory rhetoric to heart, and decided to “take back their country” by launching a violent assault on the Capitol, where legislators were in session. The building was evacuated as the rioters flooded into the heart of the building with disturbing ease. The footage and photos are surreal, depicting the rioters overturning barriers, violently overwhelming opposition, smashing windows, looting and vandalizing offices, brandishing guns, beating police officers, chanting “Hang Mike Pence”—and also strolling through velvet ropes, dressed as Vikings, smiling as they steal a podium, and snapping selfies in the Senate chamber. Their goal, of course, was to “Stop the Steal,” or prevent the certification of Biden’s election win, which they fervently believed was the result of a fraudulent and illegitimate process. Trump’s loud and continuous complaints of a fraudulent election, sustained long after investigations and court rulings indicated that the evidence was not on his side, had convinced them so thoroughly that they were more than willing to commit crimes in his name.

I’ll admit it: I never thought it would go this far. I knew Trump had long ago crossed the line of “ensuring election integrity” into “delusional and unwilling to accept reality,” willfully ignoring the fact that there’s no evidence of any fraud widespread enough to give him a chance of a win. But I still believed that at some point he would hit an internal boundary, that a little switch of common sense would flick on in his head to say “okay. I’ve got no evidence, this is tearing the country apart, and it’s time to give up.” Clearly, that was naive. (My sincere apologies to all the people I thought were being hyperbolic about Trump’s danger to the democratic process.)

After the rioters breached the Capitol, with legislators in hiding while revolution-LARPers posed for photos at their desks, staffers allegedly implored Trump to make a strong statement, but he was reluctant to condemn his own supporters. He was convinced to make a few (ineffectual) tweets encouraging peacefulness, and when he finally got on camera, he simultaneously told the rioting mob that they should “go home in peace” and that they were still correct that the election had been stolen (as well as “we love you, you’re very special”). He was also reportedly resistant to calling in the National Guard, and the Acting Secretary of Defense mentioned communicating with Pence, Pelosi, McConnell, Schumer, and Hoyer about the decision, but not with Trump himself.

Thankfully, the rioters clearly did not have any sort of plan once they’d broken into the Capitol and disrupted the certification process, so they only succeeded in delaying it. Once reinforcements arrived, they were finally cleared out of the building, the Senate and House sessions continued and the votes were certified—no thanks to the half-dozen Republican senators and 100+ Republican House members who maintained objections and were voted down. All the same, lawmakers and the country as a whole were left shocked and shaken by the violence that had invaded the core of US government. At least 5 people died as a result of the riot, including a police officer and a pro-Trump rioter shot by police.

The US is still reeling from many facets of this, debating President Trump’s degree of responsibility for the violence and why the Capitol Police were so woefully unprepared despite knowing the rally was approaching. From preliminary accounts, this critical security failure seems to have a lot to do with bureaucracy and communication gaps between leaders and law enforcement bodies. In any case, their ranks were clearly inadequate, and few arrests were made while the riot was ongoing. The left has seized upon this as evidence of racism and white supremacy, which has no basis in fact. They complain that the Trump rioters were treated gently compared to BLM protesters. I can’t say I agree. There could conceivably be a few pro-Trump police officers who shirked their duty, but there is certainly no grand conspiracy. Multiple videos show police doggedly fighting back the rioters and often being overwhelmed, including footage of an officer being crushed in a door while grappling with rioters, officers attempting to hold back a huge crowd with riot shields, and forced retreats in the face of unsurmountable odds. In the course of their defense they deployed pepper spray, utilized riot gear, and even shot a woman dead. This is not evidence of “going easy.” One video of a Capitol police officer taking a selfie with a nearby Trump protester does not define the Capitol police or their response as a whole.

The woman who was shot, Ashli Babbitt, was reportedly unarmed, but was part of the group storming the Capitol and was attempting to climb through a smashed door to penetrate deeper into the Capitol. I think the situation made the officer’s decision to shoot her understandable, and that pro-Trumpers efforts to paint her as a martyr could not be more wrong or misguided. However, I also think it’s worth noting that when people the left likes were shot in the course of committing crimes, lefties bestowed the same crown of martyrdom and claimed police brutality. Now, some of them rejoice at this woman’s death, or more often ignore it to support the narrative that the white rioters were handled more gently than BLM protesters would have been.

Furthermore, for those shocked that most rioters were allowed to simply walk out of the Capitol, it’s worth remembering that the same thing happened with the majority of summer looters. Particularly when outnumbered, police have to be strategic about picking their battles, and in both cases they decided to pursue arrests later once they had regained control. For better or worse, this is the way it is, and it has absolutely nothing to do with the color of the rioters’ skin. BLM riots also went on for days, weeks, and even months (looking at you, Portland), with antifa attacking and attempting to burn government buildings (not the Capitol, but still a big damn deal), so the argument that the Trump riot would have been shut down immediately if it was BLM is nothing but partisan nonsense. None of this, of course, is to excuse or “whatabout” what happened here—it’s merely a rebuttal to stupid politicking where it doesn’t belong.

The coming days will reveal the full truth of how the rioters managed to overwhelm law enforcement in the heart of our government, but it’s evident that they were not equipped to handle what happened. And thus the American legislature was defiled by batshit crazy Trump groupies. It’s disgusting, and honestly somewhat terrifying to watch. What if they’d had a plan? What if it had been an actual coup? Clearly Capitol security, law enforcement, and those who manage them have a lot of work to do.

In the wake of the riot, Trump found that support for his election fraud claims dropped precipitously. I breathed a sigh of relief when he finally conceded and committed to a peaceful transition of power via Twitter video—not that he had much of a choice. Many on Twitter jokingly called it a hostage video filmed at gunpoint, and I tend to agree with the sentiment, but I’m just relieved that someone made him do it. I can only hope that his concession also sinks in with his in-denial supporters, though it probably will do nothing to deter the most rabid of them. I check in on popular pro-Trump Twitter accounts from time to time, and I’ve actually seen a few of them defending the riot as “necessary” because their concerns about election integrity were not being acted upon. So in other words, “riot is the language of the unheard,” huh? How the tables turn. It was a bad argument then, and it’s a bad argument now.

While mainstream media maintained a largely sympathetic stance towards BLM despite the factions of violent looters and rioters, any sympathy they might have had for Trump supporters (even the peaceful ones) has now vanished. Post after post rages at all Trump voters and blames them for the violence. There is a painful lack of nuance and empathy there. I fully understand the anger against Trump, who has recklessly created and promoted conspiracy theories that have thrown unjustified doubt on the democratic process and inspired his supporters to riot. But hating Trump voters, who constitute a little less than half the country, is not the answer. The extremists who broke into the Capitol do not represent all Trump voters, just as the BLM looters/rioters did not represent all of BLM. It is on the group to disavow their extremists, but the violence cannot be claimed to be the fault of every member of the group. And if this country is ever to heal, compassion and persuasion are crucial to regaining some semblance of unity. If there’s any hope left for that.

In the days since the violence at the Capitol, public figures of all stripes have scrambled to disavow Trump’s rhetoric and distance themselves from a legacy that has gone from controversial to borderline seditious. I was relieved to see Republicans finally drawing a line in the sand and rejecting Trump’s claims of electoral fraud. This was happening even before the riot—Mitch McConnell’s incisive speech breaking from Trump and expressing the importance of certifying the electoral votes was a heartening sight to see—but it accelerated exponentially afterwards. I also understand and partially share some people’s anger that these Republicans did not condemn Trump’s claims earlier, when it became clear his accusations of fraud were about his ego rather than actual election integrity; I was on board with investigation and verification of votes early on, to ensure that widespread fraud did not in fact take place, but after subsequent investigations and court cases illustrated no evidence for the claims of widespread fraud, that was the time to back away from Trump and accept the results. All the same, I’ll welcome the Republicans who are coming to their senses. Better late than never.

Speaking of “never,” let’s talk about the Republican senators who planned to object to the certification of the electoral votes on January 6th, in deference to Trump and his supporters’ unfounded claims of fraud. Originally there were about a dozen senators who planned to object. After the riot, some of them reconsidered, and only half of them continued on to object (and were outvoted). One of the ringleaders of this group was Senator Josh Hawley from Missouri, who was photographed earlier in the day holding up a fist of solidarity to pro-Trump protesters. At the time, Hawley had a deal with Simon & Schuster to publish his book The Tyranny of Big Tech, which was supposed to be released later this year. After the events at the Capitol, S&S released a statement indicating that they had cancelled publication of the book, saying that they remained committed to publishing diverse viewpoints but could no longer support Hawley.

Tweet from Simon & Schuster containing a screenshot of a statement about the publisher cancelling Senator Josh Hawley's book, THE TYRANNY OF BIG TECH.

I don’t think this was the correct decision in principle, but I am honestly much more sympathetic to Simon & Schuster than I normally would be for publishers cancelling books. Hawley helped lead the charge to challenge electoral votes and was photographed signaling his support to pro-Trump protestors, some of whom would later go on to sack the Capitol. Even after the violence inspired by his conspiracy theories, he did not back down from his position. It’s just really bad optics, man. Significantly worse than the usual “X person tweeted something mildly controversial.” It’s hard to blame Simon & Schuster as a company for being spooked. After S&S’s announcement went out, Hawley posted the following:

Tweet from Josh Hawley: My statement on the woke mob at @simonschuster (original tweet contains a screenshot of a statement responding to Simon & Schuster's decision to cancel publication of Senator Josh Hawley's book)

Dude, this is the kind of shit that gives people who talk about cancel culture a bad name. The ratio can attest to that. First, while his book was indeed technically cancelled, it has absolutely nothing to do with the First Amendment. The termination of a book deal does not constitute a threat to Hawley’s legal free speech rights, and Simon & Schuster are likely well within their contractual rights to terminate the partnership. A legally permissible cancellation can certainly be unfair or unreasonable, as you know if you’ve read any of my previous posts. It would have been ridiculous if Hachette had cancelled Rowling’s The Ickabog instead of standing for free speech, or if Penguin Random House Canada had cancelled Jordan Peterson’s Beyond Order: 12 More Rules for Life when their employees tearfully complained. So to be clear, I’m not saying that “legal” means “correct” or “justified.” But the legal definition of free speech has nothing to do with Hawley’s situation, and the First Amendment has no place in this statement. Good luck pursuing any sort of legal action, pal.

Incidentally, the guy calling a company’s decision to terminate a contract “Orwellian” is the same guy who just cheered on Visa and Mastercard in December for terminating use of their cards on Pornhub. Apparently it’s only Orwellian when it happens to him.

Two Tweets from Josh Hawley: (1) .@Mastercard has just informed me that they are terminating the use of their cards on Pornhub (2) .@Visa and every other credit card company should immediately do the same

The statement also disingenuously paints Hawley as a unequivocal victim, an innocent victim of cancel culture, and he takes no responsibility whatsoever for his role in fueling conspiracy theories that led to a riot. This is an insult and disservice to actual innocent victims of cancel culture. Hawley’s assertion that cancel culture is the only thing to blame lacks some serious self-awareness. This, alongside the failure to understand core legal concepts of free speech, does not engender sympathy. Furthermore, he references a “woke mob,” but it seems the decision to cancel publication was a calculated decision by leadership, rather than caving to external pressure from a mob. (With that said, I did find a handful of tweets from S&S authors asking that the publisher cancel his book, so it’s not clear whether leadership was already considering it or whether the tweets were the origin of the idea.)

I don’t have much sympathy for Hawley’s situation. I find him obnoxious and hypocritical. AND YET. Even if I don’t like the guy, even if I think Simon & Schuster’s decision was understandable given the circumstances, I don’t believe it was the “right” decision in principle. From S&S’s perspective, it may have been the safest decision both reputationally and financially. But if they wanted to adhere firmly to the principle of viewpoint diversity, they should have considered moving forward with publication. It’s worth noting that although Hawley supported the claims of election fraud, he did not actively cause or participate in the violence at the Capitol, and was quick to indicate via Twitter that he did not support it. It’s a hell of a low bar, I know, and you can still think he’s reprehensible, but it’s relevant to remember that he is at fault for supporting a conspiracy theory that ultimately sparked violence, not for promoting violence himself. The decision to cancel would also make more sense if Hawley’s book actually promoted the conspiracy theory in question, but it explores an entirely different topic (Big Tech), a subject that is becoming increasingly more salient. It’s possible for him to be completely wrong about election fraud and still be right about some criticisms of excessively powerful tech companies. Some ideas in his book could have been worthwhile additions to an important conversation. Long story short, I don’t blame Simon & Schuster, and I am no fan of Josh Hawley, but on principle alone, the book probably should have been published.

The cancellation of this book deal brings up interesting questions about when a publisher can or should sever ties with one of their authors, and when “cancel culture” can reasonably be used as a defense (I think of cancel culture as typically applicable to situations where the cancelled is relatively innocent and the magnitude of response is unjustified, but others may think differently). This situation reminds us of the hard truth that there is no objective right answer when it comes to what justifies disavowing an author or public figure on moral grounds: it’s subjective and dependent on one’s philosophies and values. Personally, as someone who deeply values free speech and the free marketplace of ideas, I am certainly concerned about potential slippery slope effects. As I mentioned earlier, Hawley’s fault is supporting a false idea that inspired violence, not supporting the violence itself. Is anyone who believes the election fraud allegations to be summarily disavowed? And is the morality of spreading this particular conspiracy theory truly so different from, say, spreading the theory that black Americans are being targeted and slaughtered en masse by police officers, a misconception which also led to violence?

In any case, I think it likely that another publisher picks up Hawley’s book—conservative publisher Regnery has already expressed interest. More concerning than the issue of Hawley’s book deal is the tidal wave of social media deplatforming that has followed the violence at the Capitol. Ironically, the excessive power of social media and Big Tech was the core premise of his now-cancelled book, and one of few things that he and I might find common ground on. At first, the whirlwind of disavowing Trump seemed to be a positive trend. The fact that so many people, including Republicans and conservatives, condemned the riot and acknowledged Trump’s role in fomenting it was heartening. However, we’ve now begun to descend down a very risky rabbit hole of deplatforming. The majority of prominent tech platforms have banned or restricted President Trump’s accounts. Facebook has locked Trump’s account from posting for at least the next two weeks, Shopify has taken down his stores, Twitch and Snapchat have disabled his channels, and most notably of all, Twitter has permanently banned his account, citing violation of their terms surrounding incitement of violence. (Hundreds of Twitter employees reportedly petitioned leadership to make this call.) Trump attempted to circumvent the ban by utilizing other accounts including the official @POTUS account and the Trump campaign account, but Twitter locked or suspended them all. The centrists and contrarian thinkers I follow are divided on whether this comprehensive deplatforming is the correct decision. Allow me to share my thoughts.

If you evaluate Trump as a person, I’d say most moderates agree with the left that he’s no paragon of virtue. There are deep problems with his character and actions. He is both egotistical and uninformed, has shown a penchant for unkindness, and immediately throws anyone who disagrees with him under the bus. He has consistently failed to recognize the gravity of his office, and as President of the United States has wildly promoted a conspiracy theory that alleges our democratic process is compromised. This rhetoric sparked violence against the legislative branch of our government, and he then failed to (or chose not to) take decisive action against the violence. All this because, like a petulant child, he cannot face the fact that he lost. It’s difficult not to feel anger or disgust for him. However, the issue is a great deal more complicated than whether he’s a reckless asshole. I see several problems with the ban.

  1. Martyrdom

    Deplatforming Trump makes him a martyr in his supporters’ minds. To them, it signals that he is being driven off platforms because others fear the “truth” he speaks. It legitimizes his claims that Big Tech is trying to silence people like them and reinforces their feelings of persecution. I suspect Josh Hawley may be adding another chapter to his book.

  2. Pushing Bad Ideas Into an Underground Echo Chamber

    The ban does not change any Trump supporter’s mind, but reaffirms their convictions. It does not solve the problem of Trumpism, merely pushes it underground into echo chambers where there are fewer people to object to it or explain why it is flawed. This is in direct opposition to the principle that bad ideas and ideologies should be attacked with speech rather than with ostracization. Isolation of the ideas (and those who hold them) allows them to spread underground and unchallenged.

  3. Consistency (Or Lack Thereof)

    The most major problem from the perspective of the platforms themselves is the appearance of consistency. In banning or restricting Trump, they have now taken on the role of content moderators, and that’s an incredibly shitty position for such large companies to be in. They have taken on the responsibility of trying to enforce who is a danger and who is not, who is inciting violence and who is not—judge, jury, and executioner—and you can be sure the public will drag them across the coals for every piece of hypocrisy or inconsistency they find. And they will find inconsistencies, because it will be impossible for these platforms to consistently moderate every account. It’s already happening. For example, Twitter cited “incitement of violence” as the reason for the Trump permaban, and yet accounts that have directly threatened violence remain active, leaders of dictatorships who are known to incite or even perpetrate violence are still active, and so on. For example, this from Iran’s “Supreme Leader” Ali Khamenei:

    Tweet from Ali Khamenei: Our stance against Israel is the same stance we have always taken. #Israel is a malignant cancerous tumor in the West Asian region that has to be removed and eradicated: it is possible and it will happen. 7/31/91 #GreatReturnMarch

    I would classify describing a country as a “malignant cancerous tumor” and calling for its “eradication” an incitement of violence, wouldn’t you? And yet there his account sits.

    Furthermore, the fact that the criteria for banning is “incitement of violence” rather than any direct “endorsement of violence” makes it vague and all the more ripe for controversy and exploitation. Are we really trusting Twitter and Facebook to make these judgment calls on who deserves to be publicly heard? These companies have little competition, no transparent processes, and no real compulsion to be fair or unbiased. Russian opposition leader, anti-corruption activist, and Nobel Prize nominee Alexei Navalny makes a compelling argument for why the selectivity of Trump’s banning makes it an act of censorship, and how this precedent will be used to curtail free speech. A dictator could claim that almost any idea from opposition could “incite violence.” Former-NSA whistleblower and activist Edward Snowden has also expressed concern about the lasting consequences. Which leads us to the final concern…

  4. The Slippery Slope

    If Trump was the only individual banned, you’d still be left with the problem of jarring inconsistency compared to the violent dictators who still have a platform, but at least you’d have a stronger argument that the ban was limited to special cases. But the slide has already begun. The Google Play store and Apple App Store have removed Parler, the so-called free speech alternative to Twitter, until Parler institutes more comprehensive moderation policies surrounding incitement of violence. Calls to violence are already against the company’s Terms of Service via their Community Guidelines, and they have previously stated they take incitement of violence seriously, though they have clearly been unable to enforce these rules effectively thus far. Parler is indeed home to some gnarly extremists on the far right, but also to some moderates who value free speech. Yesterday, Amazon announced that they would kick Parler off their hosting services, which is essentially a death knell for the service unless they can find a new host. With Amazon terminating service in a few hours, the site will almost certainly go down, and it’s unclear whether it will come back up. Parler certainly has been used to incite violence and/or make threats of violence, but so has Twitter—there are countless threats and incitements to violence on Twitter that have not been removed. And Parler is a much smaller company with fewer resources. Booting Parler off stores and essential servers with almost no notice seems excessively harsh and targeted.

    The Walkaway movement, which encourages people to leave the Democratic party and catalogues their stories, has reported that their Facebook page and group has been suspended, along with the accounts of the founder and employees. I never saw the page, so I can’t speak to its content, but the basis for Facebook’s decision likely had something to do with the fact that the founder attended the pro-Trump demonstration at the Capitol and supported election fraud claims. Meanwhile, Twitter has reportedly banned thousands of accounts linked to the QAnon conspiracy theory, but their purge now seems to have gone beyond that population into more mainstream territory. Conservative, centrist, and contrarian Twitter accounts across the board are noting drops in follower count, though Twitter claims many of these may be normal fluctuations. Even the account for the Red Scare podcast, often classified as part of the “dirtbag left,” has been suspended. The account had been inactive for a year, which makes the suspension even more unusual. (There was speculation that one of its hosts, Anna Khachiyan, also had her account suspended, but she told followers on Instagram that she “preemptively self-ejected” after the ban of the main account.)

    My point here is not really to litigate which bannings and deplatformings are justified, but to question how far it will go. Who is next? Some of them will inevitably be unjustified, which is one of the reasons why people like me have argued against going down the road of deplatforming. If the definition of “incitement to violence” includes belief in an idea that could to lead to violence (in this case, election fraud), that’s a terrifyingly broad rationale for enacting bans. With such vague criteria, the tech companies making opaque, unmonitored decisions on who to keep and who to kick will inevitably sometimes paint with a biased or ideologically tainted brush. And dictators of the world will rejoice at a precedent that gives them cause to silence opposition and pro-democracy movements on the basis of the potential to incite violence.

The approach of deplatforming people who share conspiracy theories runs completely counter to the philosophy of the open marketplace of ideas, the principles behind free speech—the concept that bad ideas should be countered in the open with speech, not with bans. It illustrates a fundamental lack of faith in the core tenets of our democracy, which assume we as a people are capable of sorting out the good ideas from the bad. If we must deplatform people because we cannot or do not know how to stop the propagation of their bad ideas with speech, our outlook is grim indeed. Deplatforming will spread too wide a net, banning those with valuable ideas along with the rest, while bad ideas from banned parties will continue to flourish in the dark. The cracks in our framework of free speech have begun to show, not in the form of legal or governmental censorship, but in the form of regulation from tech companies who have unfettered control over the primary venues of communication in today’s world. These tech companies are of course private companies who are legally entitled to their decisions, but the reality is that they collectively have the power to silence someone’s public voice, to wipe them off the face of the Internet, without any sort of transparency, checks, or oversight. These companies are essentially monopolies, and their bans leave few or no alternatives. I don’t believe that more government regulation of private companies is the solution, but this is undeniably an issue of free expression, one that we as a free society need to consider carefully.

I understand why this is happening, in the scramble to prevent events like the violence at the Capitol, and while I believe we must condemn the violence and debunk the conspiracy theory that spawned it, I don’t think this is the way. I don’t have the right answers—all I know is that this is not a good path for a free society to travel down. The road to authoritarianism is paved with “we only silenced them because they were evil.” And I am worried for our country in more ways than one.

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Thumbnail credit: Tyler Merbler, Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)