WSJ, by Garry Kasparov
The search is on for new words for old ideas. “Cancel culture” and “woke” have become overused and abused, part of a struggle to define one’s political opponents in the harshest possible way, to dismiss ideas as not only wrong or harmful, but intolerable.
As a nonnative English speaker, I am content to avoid rhetorical fashion and use older phrases. Call it the mob mentality, groupthink, or punitive neo-Puritan orthodoxy. It is the abuse of power—mostly social, not yet governmental—to silence debate and paralyze the spread of any ideas that challenge the prevailing ideological dogma. It is the coordinated, coercive attempt to win a debate by ending debate—to punish, not to educate.
The leading practitioners of these tactics have two contradictory responses to criticism. First, they say it isn’t happening, that it doesn’t exist, that drawing attention to it is a rhetorical whine to silence critics of the establishment and shield the privileged from accountability. Second, they blame the victims, calling them bad people with bad ideas who should be banished to make room for more diverse voices. Claiming you are fighting fire with fire can be used to justify any excess; the only way to fight back is to take freedom away from someone else.
The politics of personal destruction have run amok online and off. Full disclosure: I’ve been friends with Peter Thiel for years. I disagree with him on many things, especially lately, but the attacks on him have been disturbing. In his recent book “The Contrarian,” journalist Max Chafkin assigns an ideology to Mr. Thiel, then defines it as “fascist” and even tries to blame this concocted “Thielism” for the Jan. 6 Capitol riot. There is little doubt that the book would never have come to be had Mr. Thiel not supported Donald Trump in 2016. Suddenly, a secretive libertarian tech investor with a complex history and identity—immigrant, gay, Stanford Law grad, coastal elite—became simply evil, and Mr. Chafkin was quickly paid to fill hundreds of pages to support that preordained conclusion.
Criticism of politically active billionaires and tech giants is essential. But as the left did with the Koch brothers and the right has done with George Soros, demonizing people for wealth and political activity can spin out of control. Muckraking books, screaming mobs—in person, not only online—and rumors about your personal life shouldn’t be the price of political involvement in a democracy.
Tearing down the powerful may be satisfying, if briefly, but remember who inevitably suffers most when justice is abandoned in favor of vengeance and destruction. Black Lives Matter, a necessary idea and important human-rights movement, has been hijacked by leaders who seek only power—and who are willing to sacrifice their supposed beneficiaries to achieve it. Who will be harmed most when the police are defunded, the public education system wrecked? Not the elites. The Russian Revolution dispatched some wealthy landowners, but its natural outcome was a new form of slavery under totalitarian Communism—all in the name of equality and freedom, of course.
Putting ideology and politics ahead of reason is as dangerous as putting them ahead of justice. Mr. Trump and his administration used the possibility that Covid-19 originated in a Wuhan laboratory to bash China and deflect attention from his administration’s catastrophic pandemic response. A corresponding rise in hate crimes against Asians helped turn a crucial line of inquiry into a politicized bludgeon.
The left’s reaction to Mr. Trump’s rhetoric was instructive. Anyone who mentioned the lab-leak theory was assailed as pro-Trump. Social-media companies removed posts mentioning it. By January 2021, it was obvious that shutting down debate was the true antiscience position. Invaluable months were lost, time the Chinese Communist Party used to destroy data and spread disinformation about the virus’s origins. We may never know the truth, but we do know there was a coverup.
Increasing numbers of Americans believe their freedom is under attack, and I agree. Antidemocratic forces are on the rise. Election results are treated as suspect. Threats of violence are becoming routine.
Schools are being pressured to remove books and cancel professors for spreading the “wrong” ideas. These sentiments are all too familiar to me, and to anyone who has survived life in a dictatorship. The only answer is more freedom, more speech, not less.
This is why the Renew Democracy Initiative launched the Frontlines of Freedom project, which gives voice to dissidents from authoritarian regimes around the world. Americans have the rights and self-determination that people in Russia, Hong Kong and Zimbabwe are literally dying for. We see the pillars of American democracy under attack from within, by rioters at the Capitol and online mobs. Rights are violated in the U.S. when the system fails. They are violated in dictatorships when the system works as intended. Heed this warning.
Destroying the mechanisms of democracy to preserve democracy won’t work. We can’t promote marginalized voices by telling them what is acceptable to say. We must fight to preserve the free flow of ideas, of debate and an open society, however uncomfortable it makes us. Democracy has never been a safe space.
Mr. Kasparov is chairman of the Renew Democracy Initiative.
Appeared in the November 18, 2021, print edition.