There is a war on free speech, and the front lines are YouTube ads.
You’d be forgiven for thinking that, following the outcry of politicians and commentators over YouTube’s temporary decision to demonetize the videos of conservative pundit Steven Crowder, who makes money from the ads provided by YouTube’s platform. Crowder had been called out by Vox journalist Carlos Maza for a long history of homophobic abuse, including calling Maza “a lispy queer” and selling T-shirts that say “Socialism Is for Fags.”
The incident set a certain set of free-speech warriors ablaze. Ben Shapiro, Joe Rogan, and other pundits who have made their name online for defending free speech—particularly those organized under the umbrella of the so-called “Intellectual Dark Web,” or IDW—have made Crowder a martyr of a pernicious war on civil discourse.
You’ve probably heard their arguments before: They claim to be opposed to censorship, “no-platforming” (when people are excluded from online or offline forums because of the views they express), and any attempts to discourage the open expression of ideas. These figures—who self-identify as classical liberals, conservatives, and libertarians—say that their project is completely non-ideological: It’s just about giving everyone a fair hearing.
But these same free-speech warriors went mum earlier this month when one of their own, Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson, met with Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban, who has bragged about making Hungary “an illiberal state, a non-liberal state,” and has provoked mass protests for cracking down on academic freedom. Crowder’s defenders have also neglected to mention that he once went with a camera crew to the workplace of a commenter he disagreed with, harassing them and trying to get them fired. Indeed, IDW members and their acolytes have repeatedly fought against allowing those they disagree with a platform to speak.
It’s easy to dismiss the outrage and inconsistency of online free-speech warriors who profit off of controversy. But there’s a more serious and troubling dynamic at play: The “free speech movement,” including not only online pundits but also think tanks, academics, activist groups, and their mainstream popularizers, has always been about free speech for the right—and suppressing the speech of everyone else. It is by and large funded by right-wing billionaires like the Koch brothers, who whip up anger about the “intolerant left” in order to stymie opposition to their social, economic, and political agenda.
At a time when the far right has declared war on dissent, protest, and the press in much of the world—from Orban’s Hungary to Benjamin Netanyahu’s Israel to Jair Bolsonaro’s Brazil to Donald Trump’s United States—the cover that the false prophets of free speech give to demagogues could not be more dangerous.
TO UNDERSTAND THE origins of the free-speech movement, its priorities, and its funding, you have to start not at today’s social media battlefields, but at college campuses. The narrative that has emerged in recent years is familiar: College campuses have become ground zero for a new generation of intolerant leftists.
Today’s lefty college students, goes the narrative popularized in a 2015 Atlantic article, “The Coddling of the American Mind,” are insulating themselves from opinions they don’t like. With their safe spaces and trigger warnings, they stifle intellectual debate, protesting even the appearance of anyone whom they happen to disagree with. And if we don’t fight these snowflake kids and the entitled professors who support them, if we don’t insist that the views they are suppressing get heard, then we are ringing the death knell of civil society. The American college campus, this narrative goes, may be the precursor to the Stalinist gulag.
This angle is how New York Times opinion writer and campus speech chronicler Bari Weiss cut her teeth, leading an organization of pro-Israel Columbia University students who accused professors of intimidating them for their beliefs. Same for Peterson, who first achieved notoriety for insisting he would not use the preferred gender pronouns of students and faculty. Bret Weinstein, a biology professor at Evergreen State College, became an online sensation for his highly publicized opposition to an initiative asking white students and faculty to stay home for a symbolic protest against white supremacy. After facing criticism from students, Weinstein resigned his position, sued the school, collected a healthy settlement, and went on to become a key part of the IDW, along with Shapiro, Rogan, talk show host David Rubin, and academic Jonathan Haidt, who co-wrote “The Coddling of the American Mind.” Weiss wrote the splashy New York Times profile that first publicized the group.
But despite its wide currency in online and media discourse, the thesis of “The Coddling of the American Mind” doesn’t hold up. Political scientist Jeffrey Sachs has found that young people are actually more tolerant of potentially offensive speech than older Americans, and that four years of college actually make students less supportive of banning such speech. And for all the hoopla over no-platforming, campus free-speech watchdog Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) found that last year there were a whopping total of 18 “disinvitation attempts” across all American colleges and universities. The number of those that succeeded is even lower.
So if they’re not actually destroying free speech, what is the issue the IDW and its ilk have with college students? Simple: They’re not conservative enough.
By every possible measure, Generation Z—the cohort currently in college—is the leftmost in the country. According to a Pew Research Center survey, 70 percent of Gen Z say government should do more to solve problems and 62 percent say racial/ethnic diversity is good for society, compared to 49 percent and 48 percent of baby boomers, respectively. Given that this generation was born long after the Cold War but came of age in the aftermath of the Great Recession and Trump’s election, it’s no surprise that Gen Z prefers socialism to capitalism.
This is the real campus crisis the IDW world fears: That the classical liberal intellectual tradition of white supremacy, patriarchy, and capitalism is under threat by the most diverse generation in American history, and the most radical in at least a century. It is not marginal speech that these “free-speech warriors” are protecting, but that of the entrenched, powerful interests of our country’s elite. Indeed, just looking at the college activism of some of these figures—from Weiss’s campaign against Muslim and Arab scholars at Columbia to Peterson’s call for instructors at a left-wing teacher’s college to be “put on trial for treason”—a clear pattern of anti-left censorship emerges.
These actions go far beyond mere personal animus. In peeling back the curtain on the funding networks that have popularized the IDW’s cause, an even more nefarious picture emerges: a coordinated, strategic effort by right-wing billionaires like the Koch brothers to extinguish any opposition to their political, economic, and social agenda.
Don’t take my word for it—Richard Fink, president of the Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation, has openly bragged about it. According to his “Structure of Social Change” philosophy, the goal of the Koch Foundation’s philanthropy is to make grants in a strategic way so as to best affect public policy and influence broader social change. And what does Fink insist is a key part of this strategy? You guessed it—college campuses. Koch money is all over organizations that advocate for campus free speech, like the infamous astroturf group Speech First.
But it goes much deeper than the obvious, ideological nonprofits—many members of the IDW are directly involved with Koch cash.
Dave Rubin’s influential podcast, The Rubin Report, for example, has a financial partnership with Learn Liberty, a think tank started by the Koch-funded Institute for Humane Studies (IHS), where Charles G. Koch himself sits on the board. When the Canadian government denied Jordan Peterson funding for his work, Rebel Media—a group funded with Koch money and headed by Ezra Levant, a far-right Islamophobe with ties to the Koch network—raised cash for him (Peterson has since returned the favor, fundraising for the IHS). Ben Shapiro has collected speaker fees from the Koch-funded Young America’s Foundation and Turning Point USA. And Bret Weinstein was hosted by the University of Wisconsin-Stout’s Free Speech Week, a project of their Center for the Study of Institutions and Innovation—funded by, you guessed it, the Charles G. Koch Foundation.
It’s not just the IDW itself: Some of its key popularizers also get Koch funding. Bari Weiss and The Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf—who has been one of the most visible defenders of Peterson in the mainstream media—have both received cash prizes from the Koch-funded Reason Foundation, where David Koch himself sits on the board of trustees. And remember “The Coddling of the American Mind”? Well, one of its co-authors, Greg Lukianoff, is the head of that campus free-speech watchdog, FIRE. That organization is funded, of course, by the Koch brothers (for good measure, the Charles Koch Institute also did a laudatory write-up of the piece).
The Atlantic is perhaps the worst offender. Last year it launched “The Speech Wars,” a reporting project that seeks “to understand where free speech is in danger and where it has been abused.” Even though the magazine had just been bought by billionaire Laurene Powell Jobs and was seeing all-time high circulation and web traffic, The Atlantic solicited funding for the project from none other than the Charles Koch Foundation (the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and the Fetzer Institute are also underwriters).
When I asked The Atlantic for comment, a spokesperson replied that “editorial control for this series—as with every piece of journalism we create—rests solely with The Atlantic.” But the magazine refused to deny that reporters and editors with “The Speech Wars” are ever in contact with the Koch Foundation. Editor-in-chief Jeffrey Goldberg did not respond to my request for comment, and The Atlantic has not disclosed how much money it has received from the Koch Foundation.
The mission of the free-speech movement, from its IDW evangelists to its Koch funders, is to advance right-wing ideas, to marginalize those on the left who challenge them, and to mobilize useful idiots of the center as political cover. It’s tempting to dismiss this as conspiracy, but the Kochs have left a paper trail of their designs on suppressing the speech of any who disagree with them. Documents released last year by George Mason University—a hotbed of libertarian scholarship—show that in exchange for giving millions of dollars to the university, Koch-controlled entities were given influence over academic affairs, including faculty appointments and hires, and even student admissions. A similar controversy had emerged years earlier over a Koch Foundation gift to Florida State University. With the Koch brothers estimated to have spent over $250 million on more than 500 colleges and universities, it doesn’t take a stretch of the imagination to see the impact that could have on suppressing left-wing speech.
It’s not just the Kochs. FIRE, for example, has also received funding from the right-wing billionaire Olin and Scaife families. Through the right-wing media sites The Daily Wire and PragerU, the billionaire Wilks brothers have helped bankroll the rise of IDW stars Ben Shapiro and Joe Rogan. In the U.K., William Davies has written about how the right wing promotes its agenda under the guise of “free speech” in the exact same way. And as investigative reporters like The New Yorker’s Jane Mayer have shown, this isn’t just about a couple of billionaires throwing some money around: It’s an organized project by an elite class to preserve its power in the face of an existential threat from the left.
In Trump’s America, we have seen the disturbing rise of two contradictory trends: increasing attacks—both rhetorical and physical—on socialists, immigrants, LGBT people, women, people of color, and other marginalized communities; and a rising sentiment of “false victimhood” among many white men who feel that everything from Marxism to women’s studies courses to babies on the border are to blame for a perceived loss of status. This tension is creating a vicious cycle that threatens to erode our democracy, entrench the power of large capital interests, and terrorize all who pose even the slightest challenge to this order. And of course, from Latin America to Eastern Europe to South Asia, this trend is a global one.
What makes the free-speech movement most nefarious is it takes those of us best equipped to stop this trend—the left and marginalized communities—and claims that we, who have for so long been silenced by those in power, are the real threat to free speech. That’s an issue far greater than Steven Crowder and YouTube ads, and one that we must all work to fight. Our very freedom—to speak, to protest, to challenge power and live dignified, fulfilled lives—is at risk.