America’s Muzzled Freedom

There are no gulags in America. But that doesn’t mean there is no tyranny. Gulags are so sloppy and inefficient, anyway. America’s coming tyranny presents a different menace. This tyranny, long ago glimpsed by Alexis de Tocqueville, ignores the body and goes right for the soul. Its victims will not be deprived of their goods or lives for contradicting our official party line (not yet!). People may still keep their jobs or find new ones.

The crimes under this new tyranny are perceived speech-crimes or thought-crimes. Those who commit such crimes will be isolated. They will become strangers in the land or exiles. When exiles approach, former friends will flee as from someone impure. Many may believe that these exiles are innocent or may wish to extend them forgiveness. A former friend may whisper encouragement, privately, but even he shall abandon the impure to their fate for fear that something like this may happen to him. Whose heart does not ache for these injustices? Whose conscience is so seared as to think such un-personings are causes for celebration?

Yet, in a larger sense, this is only half our reason for chagrin.

Just as a virus infects the whole host, so our culture of cancellation exudes poisons and infects the whole body politic. What sort of country keeps this culture of cancellation within its midst? How does this virus affect the whole?

In the style and language of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, then, it is worth considering the attributes of America’s new, “muzzled freedom.”*

1. Constant Fear

The uncancelled remain free, but their freedom is not what it used to be. The free have something to lose, after all. They could lose their jobs, their good name, the honor that comes from inventing, and the ability to educate others or to influence institutions. They could bring shame or ignominy on their children, or have a difficult time providing for the lifestyle that families have grown accustomed to. So are the free really free?

A careless word (no matter how long ago it was uttered) or gesture or even a studied silence can lead a former person to be thrown into the void. Nearly every American stands on a trap door above this void. If you love the fruits of your freedom, it is best to avoid opening that trap door and losing all that you have held dear.

This fear makes you do things you wouldn’t ordinarily do. It makes you refrain from doing things you normally would. It makes you raise questions you don’t really think are fair, and it makes you refrain from raising questions that you think are fair.

Can you sympathize with Chris Cuomo, for example? Every night he goes on the air knowing that he must make his guests conform to the line—and that means asking the “right questions.” When white suburbanites defend their property from an angry mob, he asks “to be fair, the mob never actually attacked you or your home, right? Wasn’t the mob just looking for the mayor’s house?” If he displays an insufficiently fanatical zeal for the “woke” cause, he could lose his platform. Others like James Bennet (who merely published an article for “the other side”) or Tom McGrath (who did plenty but not “enough” to help minorities) have, after all, been un-personed for less. Should Cuomo report on the slaughter of innocent black children on the crime-ridden streets of America’s largest cities? Should he notice or even mention that fellow travelers have been forced out at the New York Times or resigned from the paper?  Probity isn’t everything, after all. He owes the cause something, nearly everything in fact. Cuomo’s mendacity appears almost forgivable once you understand it. The man does not look comfortable in his chair. Does anyone?

Ideological lies sustain this new tyranny. All must train their minds to a false image of themselves. Everyone must applaud and salute.

How many craven college administrators fear the woke students that they have helped to create?

What kind of a reporter stands in front of a burning building and says that these protests are “mostly peaceful”? Is he insensible to the world or afraid of contradicting a narrative?

How many journalists or academics or actors or producers have ever used an off-color word? Or worn an “insensitive” costume?  Or cited a non-approved line of argument?  Or asked for peace with words that could be manipulated (as did MIT Chaplain Fr. Daniel Moloney)? Can one ever really be safe anymore?

That repose, confidence, and peace of mind—among the chief blessings of civil society—are now things of the past, even for the most anonymous

2. Corruption

Statesmen of the past never came clean about the ills of this country, we’re told. They were never concerned about free government or establishing a national union. They were interested in white supremacy. And that is it. None of them were inveterate defenders of human rights. All of them should be consigned to the dustbin of history.

Who then should lead us in the effort to purge our past and establish a glorious future? Why should we listen to Frederick Douglass or Booker T. Washington when we have luminaries like Robin DiAngelo? Let’s empower a mob instead of appealing to the examples of Teddy Roosevelt or U.S. Grant—I bet that will turn the country around.

To call the low high and the high low is corruption. To call the stupid wise. To call the fanatical statesmanlike. To call the narrow-minded prophetic or the single-minded just. To praise ingratitude about the past as a virtue. Mediocrities and fanatics rise under our muzzled freedom, while those who are better, more honest, and more concerned about the whole political community are trampled underfoot and dishonored. Or forced out for writing that “buildings matter, too.”

3. Betrayal as a Form of Existence

What will you do when someone is cancelled?  Let’s say this person was a friend, but his taint could compromise your future. Perhaps you don’t disown him, at least not right away. Make a pot roast or give him a gift card. I’m so sorry. You would never lead the charge against your friend or colleague, but he or she has always been a little glib. It was inevitable, right?

The mildest form of betrayal is quietly watching as your colleague or friend is dragged through the mud, doing nothing and hardly noticing that the doomed person is no longer there once he is cancelled. Perhaps the senior curator at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Gary Garrels, should resign for promoting “toxic white supremacist beliefs” like his decision to “continue to collect white artists” even while consciously emphasizing non-white artists. If he could be hounded out for that, you could be hounded out for defending him or recognizing his humanity publicly. Defending him could make a hostile or uncomfortable work environment for some.  He’s gone after all, and being a martyr does no one any good.

Does this silence do violence to your soul?

More severe forms of betrayal—renunciations—are hardly unknown. Secret screenshots of private text messages, selectively edited, can allow the words of a seeming friend to ruin a political career for sympathizing with “white supremacists,” as the case of Caylan Ford in Canada shows.

Perhaps your football team will demand severe consequences for wearing a One America News t-shirt and criticizing a corrupt mainstream media, as in the case of Mike Gundy. Perhaps an ambiguous comment during a private lesson could lead to an ouster.

Longtime colleagues will lead the charge against an Amy Wax or a William Jacobson without ever even meeting them face to face. Thus respected or tolerated colleagues become pariahs through a betrayal of civil and professional norms.

Many things can be betrayed, but personal integrity is always compromised when they are.

4. The Lie as a Form of Existence

Ideological lies sustain this new tyranny. All must conform their actions and train their minds to a false image of themselves. Everyone must applaud and salute. Other considerations must give way to the ideological lie.

Our lies are not the lies of communism, exactly. Our liars aim to destroy an existing society and to transform it. Our lies: All disparities are traceable to discrimination or systematic racism. Progress will come through liberation once our reactionary past is repudiated. Our past is unmitigated Darkness, and its victims are holy and blameless. Our deepest official lie is just this: The line between good and evil, indeed, runs through sexes, classes, and races, and not through every human heart. Many sing themselves a lullaby: telling our lies and believing them is safe. Our lies are easy to embrace since they contain some truth (and they do, but not the whole truth).

Should you start educating your kids with the official lies and cultivate their self-hatred? Or should you hope that they can thread the needle and maintain two faces for the rest of their lives?

One must not contradict the general, common lies. In the face of a mystery that doesn’t fit the official line (like black-on-black violence), reference to ready-made clichés are a perfect substitute for thought and make it unnecessary. Noticing such things is white supremacy.

It is vacation time. Where should you go? Why not vacation in the South Side of Chicago? No one ever does that. Why? Robin DiAngelo has an answer—and the prescribed lie: white people avoid living in or visiting neighborhoods because they are white supremacists. They don’t say that though. They say such neighborhoods are “unsafe.” But it turns out that unsafe is a code word, a dog whistle for white supremacy. If you avoid such neighborhoods to avoid blacks, you are of course a white supremacist. But if you avoid such neighborhoods because they are “unsafe,” you are also a white supremacist. You will be safer by staying away, but you create cognitive dissonance if you stay away and believe the lie. Best never to think about this problem and to salute the lies. 

If only the need for such lying were confined to one’s public life. What do you tell your children? Your children see you up close and personal, and they know you and respect you. But they have learned in our schools, increasingly mimicking the official line, that all white people are racist, whether they know it or not. Do you tell your children that their teacher is mistaken (and thus disrupt the authority that schools exercise over your kids) or that their teacher is right (and thus disrupt your own authority)?

It might be a matter of no small concern if your child, attending school, blurts out “my parents are not racist” or “my parents think all lives matter” or, worse yet, “all lives do matter.” Isn’t teaching such unauthorized beliefs in the home a matter of public importance? Perhaps child-services should be called, or the parents should be re-educated. Are child informers out of the question? Should you start educating your kids with the official lies and cultivate their self-hatred? Or should you hope that they can thread the needle and maintain two faces for the rest of their lives? No small question.

5. Cruelty

Can people come to enjoy throwing their fellow citizens into the void? Remember Brendon Eich? While CEO of Mozilla, his support for the nefarious cause of “traditional marriage” was exposed (see above on corruption). He was forced out of his position under pressure from a woke mob. While no doubt well off, he was an inventor and worker, but, for a while, no one would hire him. No sympathy could be showed to Eich, however. His blacklisting was a sign of our Virtue and Progress.

There is also some cruelty in schadenfreude. Sometimes the woke eat the woke. What could be more delicious? Perhaps you used some saucy language on social media. Your boss finds out and, shocked that such things happened and worried about the woke mob, fires you. Then it turns out that your boss has used precisely the same saucy language and flown confederate flags to boot! Isn’t it fun to watch him squirm after he made you, his subordinate, go? Does schadenfreude advance the cause of liberty?

Statues have been torn down hither and yon. New statues will someday be put in their place. What statues would our mob build?

Perhaps, someday, erected on the Google quad, we will see a pack of wolves, on the leash of a human resource manager. She will be readying to unleash these wolves on a man who, kneeling down supinely, thinks he deserves it. And people will nod in approval at the wolves who find their prey.

*This essay owes its structure and language to Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s “Our Muzzled Freedom,” from The Gulag Archipelago, Part IV, Chapter 3.

Reader Discussion

Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.

on July 27, 2020 at 11:02:10 am

Well said! Possibly the most insightful and cutting piece I’ve ever seen on L&L.

Libertarians, conservatives, and moderates who fantasize some sort of peaceful coexistence with the left are indeed prey.

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Charles N. Steele
on July 27, 2020 at 13:17:54 pm

In 1968 the Kerner Commission reported to President Lyndon Johnson on the state of race relations in the country at the time: “White society,” the Kerner Report stated, “is deeply implicated in the ghetto. White institutions created it, white institutions maintain it, and white society condones it.” America was severely divided and the Kerner Commission forewarned of a society in discord- of two opposed countries: one black and one white. In 1968, LBJ and the white male leadership of this country felt that was too much "truth" for Americans to bear. The Kerner Report got buried, and what followed in the years to follow was President Nixon, the "Southern Strategy," "law and order" and the racially twisted Carceral State. There are all kinds of lies, but the lies of the oppressor are far less tolerable in the eyes of history. Elie Wiesel said in 1986 that "We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim." As I recall, Stalin was more into building memorials to himself and his false gods--not tearing them down.

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Anthony Raymond Brunello
on July 27, 2020 at 19:27:41 pm

No, Democrats created the divide. First, by their overtly racist appeals, if not core ideology, to the "Solid south"; later to be followed by the genius of "urban renewal", a plan endorsed, if not loved, by the Liberal (at that time) wing of the Democrat and Republican establishment. Urban renewal was termed by James Baldwin as "Negro removal."
So yes, you Mr Brunello are correct in asserting that "White society" created many of the problems that blacks had to endure.
BUT - Let us not get ahead of the pony and the cart as only SOME whites were entitled to make these decisions that adversely affected blacks. It was the Sargeant Strivers, the Kennedy acolytes, and the rest of the "establishment that created these problems - NOT the nass of white people.
And, yes, again, you are correct in stating that "the lies of the oppressor are far less tolerable in the eyes of history"
Your only problem, Sir, is that you simply misidentify the oppressor.
I will name that oppressor for you:
The Democrat Party and its paternalistic attitude toward minorities - now mutated into "self-hate" for white society.

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Guttenburgs Press and Brewery
on July 27, 2020 at 21:05:14 pm

“White institutions” makes sense if referring to Woodrow Wilson and the Progressives. They were opposed to America and wanted to undo the Declaration and Constitution and substitute rule by “experts.” LBJ furthered this agenda with his “Great Society,” designed to turn people into wards of the government.

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Charles N. Steele
on July 30, 2020 at 01:54:03 am

I was in college in 1968 and I don't recall the Kerner Commission's report being buried. I seem to remember it being widely covered in the media. Certainly my friends and I knew of it. As far as oppressor vs. victim goes, which exactly is which these days? I see arrayed on one side the vast power of academia, mass media, the federal bureaucracy, the tech and social media behemoths, most major corporations, the entertainment industry (including the nightly news) most of the federal judiciary and a highly successful Black Lives Matter movement which is long on narrative and short on evidence.

On the other side = the "bad" side - stand the publicans and the sinners: conservative intellectuals, evangelical Christians and the despised and struggling white working class, all hatefully flaunting their American flags and MAGA hats.

Would you seriously ask us believe that when the first group is lecturing, bullying and cancelling the second group that they are "speaking truth to power"?

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fred gill
on July 27, 2020 at 15:00:25 pm

Regarding the last paragraph, why encouarge the demonization of wolves? They are intrinsically, ecologically, and economically valuable.

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David E. Shellenberger
on July 27, 2020 at 18:52:50 pm

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn would roll in his grave at this nonsense being compared to the gulags.

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Deirdre elizabeth Seim
on July 28, 2020 at 14:27:19 pm

So right. It is true that Solzhenitsyn saw first hand the destructive consequences of Stalin's regime (and successors) to crush independent and creative thought. He writes directly of it in THE FIRST CIRCLE, and of course, his life was a testimony to his struggle. I believe (without being able to prove it) that Solzhenitsyn would find Yenor's arguments to be well "beyond the pale."

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Anthony Raymond Brunello
on August 03, 2020 at 11:49:31 am

Hardly. Were he alive, Solzhenitsyn would be at the forefront of those warning America of what it was allowing to develop.

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on July 27, 2020 at 19:01:09 pm

How demoralizing to read a serious essay making a credible argument about political conditions in the United States of America which "owes its structure and language" to portions of Solzhenitsyn's "The Gulag Archipelago.'' In his memoir of man's horror to man, the Great Man describes the intellectuals of Chekov's plays who were forever opining on what their world would look like in decades hence. Solzhenitsyn says that had Chekov's fictional heroes seen what was to become routine in Soviet Russia a mere 40 years later they would have been unable to finish their roles in Chekov's plays because they would have been carted off stage to insane asylums. Indeed, Solzhenitsyn says that had a Russian citizen of Chekov's time accused his government of behavior which was later to become its norm the accusation would have been considered slanderous of Mother Russia.

It has been born, and we now have need for worry "what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
slouches towards (America...)"

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on August 03, 2020 at 11:47:54 am

Solzhenitsyn: The permanent lie becomes the only safe form of existence, in the same way as betrayal. Every wag of the tongue can be overheard by someone, every facial expression observed by someone. Therefore every word, if it does not have to be a direct lie, is nonetheless obliged not to contradict the general, common lie. There exists a collection of ready-made phrases, of labels, a selection of ready-made lies. . . .In the most scientific of texts it is required that someone’s false authority or false priority be upheld somewhere, and that someone be cursed for telling the truth; without this lie even an academic work cannot see the light of day.

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on July 28, 2020 at 00:40:23 am

Professor Yenor identifies the antagonist in his essay as the "culture of cancellation." It seems significant that it is not government agents or some oppressive cabal of elite malefactors that are the instruments of oppression. This raises the question of whether the culture accounts for the ideas and substance behind the phenomenon, the response of those targeted by it,or both.

No doubt there is an element of truth in Professor Yenor's premise, as it certainly seems commonplace for professors, media types and officers of woke corporations to participate in and endorse suppression of discrete viewpoints and imposition of a disapproving chill on robust public discourse. The ideas that currently appear to be favored however are not innovative, or even particularly appealing. They are re-warmed ideologies that arose in periods of economic and social tumult, and which had relatively short lives in those situations in which they managed to be given a practical trial. Cancel culture is a phenomenon that arises from a romantic myth of class struggle, revolutionary idealism, and gaseous abstractions of equality and justice. It is not however, a moral, intellectual, or ethical phenomenon, guided as it is by subjective feelings rather than reason and conscience. It does not arise from a moral awakening, but rather from Pavlovian conditioning. The stimulus to cancel culture is not the intellectual and spiritual pursuit of justice, the truth, or even good ideas. The rationale of cancel culture is the emotional satisfaction of humiliating another person and thereby soliciting approval for oneself. As a result, there is no subtlety, no attempts to make necessary distinctions, and quite often no effort at being truthful. Cancel culture is not dependent on a particular doctrine or agenda; it exists as a tactic of emotional gratification. This is why the targets of it are constantly changing, and no particular view guarantees safety.

Cancel culture is an emotional phenomenon, legitimized by psychobabble, sophistry and melodrama. The reason that such concepts as "All lives matter is racist," "Silence is violence," "white fragility," and other objectively non-sensical concepts have purchase is that emotional appeals do not have to be reasonable. The goal of an emotional appeal is to make people feel a certain way, to create an atmosphere, not to solve a problem. The cultural infirmities that have allowed cancel culture to flourish include the immediate approval/disapproval feedback provided by social media, (this feedback is also emotional rather than thoughtful) the lack of immediate consequences for mistaking irrational platitudes for practical wisdom, and the cult-like mindlessness of the coddled and emotionally vulnerable.

It should be noted that the ultimate targets of cancel culture are facts, reason and logic. The people who are canceled are just game pieces used to keep score. The idea that all lives matter, or every life matters, or everyone's life matters, or no life does not matter or whatever, is a proposition that can be defended in good conscience using moral reasoning, logic and unqualified humanity. The term "systemic racism" on the other hand is a term of art that is used as an incantation that obscures the possibility that the persons invoking it may be the ones responsible for it, if in fact it means anything practical at all. Scouring popular culture that contains depictions of minorities in order to claim offense is not only illogical, it is stupid. It is like an "Antiques Roadshow" where busybodies bring something innocuous that they noticed in the community to be assessed by race hustlers, who determine if there is any offensiveness that can be redeemed for social approval. The process of canceling, of pulling down statues, de-platforming, demanding that people lose livelihoods is getting more and more ridiculous, even if more and more tragic. It is now cruel sport, engaged in by emotionally immature people who have no real idea what they are doing, and who do not have the skills to recognize the natural consequences of their mean-spirited, and contemptible indulgences.

Bertrand Russell has God asking "Would it not be more amusing to obtain undeserved praise, to be worshipped by beings whom he tortured?" In an analogous way, the modern wokester may well wonder if it would not be more satisfying to cancel truth, dignity, and reason, rather than hatred, racism and division. Destruction apparently is more emotionally satisfying for some than actually doing something that might make life better.

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on August 03, 2020 at 12:32:52 pm

Well said. Personally I explain it as a contest of wills. The goal is to win the contest; everything else--the neologisms, the invocations of "systemic racism" (whenever I hear someone utter "structural" or "systemic" I am certain they have no idea what they are even thinking, let alone talking about), the absurd analogies to fascism--are merely expedients, weapons to be picked up, used and put down as needed. A more current phrase for this most fundamental of all human impulses--will to power--is "controlling the narrative."

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on July 29, 2020 at 23:45:25 pm

Really nice work and great to read, thanks! Doubly appreciated for its nod to Solzhenitsyn and his GA which I too pulled out to reread not long ago. That book along with Sheldon Wolin book on inverted totalitarianism helps to add some rational thought to this absurdist historical (hysterical) moment.

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on July 30, 2020 at 02:12:39 am

What a great article. It addresses all my despair and fear for our society. Lord help us, how can we help this generation to see there is beauty in our nation and people.

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Carin Bena

Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.