So I tried out Gab.ai

After the recent purges of Alex Jones and assorted conservatives and libertarians by Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and others, I decided it really is time for me to learn more about other social networks that are more committed to free speech. I decided to try Gab.ai, hoping against hope that it wouldn't prove to be quite as racist as it is reputed to be.

See, while I love freedom of speech and will strongly defend the right of free speech—sure, even of racists and Nazis, even of Antifa and Communists—I don't want to hang out in a community dominated by actual open racists and Nazis. How boring.

So I went to the website, and, well, Gab.ai certainly does have a lot of people who are at least pretending to be Nazis. I never would have guessed there were that many Nazis online.

To support my impression, I posted a poll:

 Are you OK with all the open racism and anti-Semitism on Gab.ai? 57% Yes. 37% I tolerate it. 6% Makes me want to leave.

Wow! 1,368 votes! I sure hit a nerve with Gab.ai. But the results, well, they were disappointing: 57% of self-selected poll answerers on the web poll said they were OK with open racism on Gab.ai, 37% tolerated it, and it made 6% of them want to leave. But I was told by several people that I should have added another option: "That's what the Mute button is for."

There's another reason I've spent this much time exploring the site. It's that I really doubt there are that many actual Nazis on the site. Consider for a moment:

  1. The Establishment is increasingly desperate to silence dissenting voices.
  2. Gab.ai and some other alternative media sites have been getting more popular.
  3. Silicon Valley executives know the fate of MySpace and Yahoo: it's possible for giants to be replaced. Users are fickle.
  4. Like progressives, most conservatives aren't actually racist, and they will be put off by communities dominated by open, in-your-face racists.
  5. There's a midterm election coming up and people spending untold millions to influence social media, since that, we are now told, is where it's at.

Considering all that, it stands to reason that lots of left-wing trolls are being paid (or happily volunteer; but no doubt many are paid) to flood Gab.ai and make appallingly racist, fascist, anti-Semitic accounts. Of course they are; it's an obvious strategy. The only question is how many—i.e., what percentage of the Gab.ai users—consist of such faux racists.

Such trolls aside, there are at least two broad categories of people on Gab.ai. In one category there are the bona fide racists, Nazis, anti-Semites, and other such miscreants, and in the other category there is everyone else—mostly conservatives, libertarians, and Trump voters who do things like share videos of (black conservative) Candace Owens and shill for Trump (I voted for Gary Johnson, and I've always been bored by political hackery). The latter category of user mutes those of the former category, apparently.

So, feeling desperate for an alternative to Twitter, I spent a few hours today on the site, mostly muting racists, and a bit of getting introduced to some people who assured me that most of the people on the site were decent and non-racist, and that what you had to do was—especially in the beginning—spend a lot of time doing just what I was doing, muting racists.

Boy, are there a lot of racists (or maybe faux racists) there to mute. I still haven't gotten to the end of them.

But I'm not giving up on Gab.ai, not yet. Maybe it'll change, or my experience will get better. A lot of people there assured me that it would. I love that it's as committed to free speech as it is, and I wouldn't want to censor all those racists and Nazis just as I wouldn't want to censor Antifa and Communists. Keep America weird, I say!

If it's not Gab.ai, I do think some other network will rise. Two others I need to spend more time on are Steemit.com, a blockchain blogging website, similar to Medium and closely associated with EOS and Block.one, and Mastodon.social, which is sort of a cross between Twitter and Facebook. Steemit has become pretty popular (more so than Gab.ai), while Mastodon has unfortunately been struggling. I also want to spend more time on BitChute, a growing and reasonably popular YouTube competitor.


I am informed; you are misinformed; and the government should do something about this problem

Poynter, the famous journalism thinktank, has published "A guide to anti-misinformation actions around the world." This sort of thing is mostly interesting not just for the particular facts it gathers but also for the assumptions and categories it takes for granted. The word "misinformation" is thrown around, as are "hate speech" and "fake news." The European Commission, it seems, published a report on "misinformation" (the report itself says "disinformation") in order to "help the European Union figure out what to do about fake news." Not only does this trade on a ridiculously broad definition of "disinformation," it assumes that disinformation is somehow a newly pronounced or important problem, that it is the role of a supernational body (the E.U.) to figure out what to do about this problem, and that it is also the role of that body to "do something." Mind you, there might be some government "actions" that strike me as being possibly defensible; but the majority that I reviewed looked awful.

For example, look at what Italy has done:

A little more than a month before the general election, the Italian government announced Jan. 18 that it had set up an online portal where citizens could report fake news to the police.

The service, which prompts users for their email addresses, a link to the fake news and any social media networks they saw it on, ferries reports to the Polizia Postale, a unit of the state police that investigates cyber crime. The department will fact-check them and — if laws were broken — pursue legal action. At the very least, the service will draw upon official sources to deny false or misleading information.

That plan came amid a national frenzy over fake news leading into the March 4 election and suffered from the same vagueness as the ones in Brazil, Croatia and France: a lacking definition of what constitutes "fake news."

Poynter, which I think it's safe to say is an Establishment thinktank, mostly just dutifully reports on these developments. In their introduction, they do eventually (in the fourth paragraph) get around to pointing out some minor problems with these government efforts: the difficulty of defining "fake news" and, of course, that pesky free speech thing.

That different countries are suddenly engaging in press censorship is only part of the news. The other part is that Poynter, representing the journalistic Establishment, apparently does not find it greatly alarming about "governments" that are "taking action." Well, I do. Just consider the EU report's definition of "disinformation":

Disinformation as defined in this Report includes all forms of false, inaccurate, or misleading information designed, presented and promoted to intentionally cause public harm or for profit.

This implies that if in the opinion of some government authority, some claim is merely false and, like most professional publishing operations it is published for profit, then it counts as disinformation. This means that (with an exception made for non-profit publishers, apparently) the E.U. considers anything false to be an item of disinformation, and thus presumably ripe for some sort of regulation or sanction.

Well, of course this sounds ridiculous, but I am just reading. It's not my fault if that's what the report says. I mean, I'm sorry, but it certainly does look as if the E.U. wants to determine what's false and to then to ban it (or something). Of course, the definition does first say that disinformation is designed to intentionally cause public harm, but anybody who reads legalistic texts needs to bear in mind that, as far as the law is concerned, the parts that come after "or" and "and" are just as important as the parts that come before. The text does say "or for profit." Is that because in the E.U., seeking profit is as suspect as intentionally causing public harm?

The difficulty about texts like this, aside from the fact that they are insufferably dull, is that they are so completely chock-full of bad writing, bad reasoning, false assumptions, and so forth, that it would take several volumes to say everything that needs saying about the E.U. report and Poynter's run-down of government actions. What about all the important issues associated with what looks like a worldwide crackdown on free speech? They have been solved, apparently.

Poynter at least has the good sense to acknowledge difficulties, as they do at the end of the discussion of Italy's regulatory scheme. The government positions are appalling, as if they were saying: "We know what fake news and disinformation and misinformation are, more or less. Sure, there's a small intellectual matter of defining them, but no big deal there. It's just a matter of deciding what needs to be done. Free speech, well, that's just another factor to be weighed."

Just imagine reading this page just twenty years ago. It would have been regarded as an implausible horrorshow. I imagine how someone might have responded to a glimpse 20 years into the future:

What are you saying--in 2018, countries all around the world will decide that it's time to start seriously cracking down on "misinformation" because it's too easy to publish false stuff online, and free speech and freedom of the press? That's ridiculous. It's one thing to get upset about "political incorrectness," but it's another thing altogether for the freedom-loving West, and especially for journalists (for crying out loud!) to so bemoan "hate speech" and "fake news" (really?) that they'll give up free speech and start calling on their governments to exert control. That's just...ridiculous. Do you think we'll forget everything we know about free speech and press freedom in 20 years?

Well, it would have been ridiculous in 1998. Twenty years later, it still should be, but apparently it isn't for so many sophisticated, morally enlightened leaders who can identify what is true and what is misinformation.

It's time to push back.


The New York Times comes out against free speech

According to a front page New York Times news (not opinion) article by Adam Liptak ("Weaponizing the First Amendment: How Free Speech Became a Conservative Cudgel"), we must adopt a stance of skepticism toward all this talk of free speech, if we wish to be sophisticated and sensitive, as all good Times readers aspire to be. Free speech? So passé. Only conservatives care about free speech anymore.

That's monumental news--the most influential newspaper in the world, the standard bearer of the Establishment, announcing that free speech is so, like, over.

Free speech is one of my hobby horses, although I don't talk about it much on this blog. In keeping with my decision to put more content on my blog and less on Twitter and Facebook, I'm going to respond to the Times article here. And my, is there a lot to say about it.

The court’s five conservative members, citing the First Amendment, had just dealt public unions a devastating blow. The day before, the same majority had used the First Amendment to reject a California law requiring religiously oriented “crisis pregnancy centers” to provide women with information about abortion.

Conservatives, said Justice Kagan, who is part of the court’s four-member liberal wing, were “weaponizing the First Amendment.”

That's a disquieting thing for a Supreme Court justice to say. Taking a hard line on the First Amendment--the same hard line that has been traditional among liberals--is not to "weaponize" it, as if fundamental principles of the American system were suddenly dangerous weapons, ripe for abuse. The court's progressives believe that a religious pregnancy counseling service is giving medical advice, so it should cover all options, and that includes abortion. But pregnancy advice is not merely medical; it is ethical, religious, political, psychiatric, and deeply personal. Such advice (which, coming from a Christian organization, might include strong pleas not to get an abortion) does not necessarily constitute medical advice at all.

It's pretty damn obvious that requiring religious organizations to share information about abortion, a practice those organizations sincerely consider to be murder, abridges not just their freedom of speech, but also their freedom to practice their religion according to their own conscience. The majority, in their wisdom, agreed with me.

The two decisions were the latest in a stunning run of victories for a conservative agenda that has increasingly been built on the foundation of free speech. Conservative groups, borrowing and building on arguments developed by liberals, have used the First Amendment to justify unlimited campaign spending, discrimination against gay couples and attacks on the regulation of tobacco, pharmaceuticals and guns. ...

There you have it. If certain recent conservative victories were "built on the foundation of free speech," then apparently the problem must be with free speech; it couldn't possibly be because left-wing lawmakers are increasingly wanting to impose their viewpoints on the populace by law. As absurd as it sounds, the Times article really does advance the view that, since those conservative victories are rooted in free speech, there must be something wrong with traditional free speech absolutism.

The article approvingly quotes a Cato Institute lawyer who rightly labels the Court's position, also, as libertarian--mind you, we're talking about a position which is now avowedly the conservative one and which used to be the liberal one:

“The libertarian position has become dominant on the right on First Amendment issues,” said Ilya Shapiro, a lawyer with the Cato Institute. “It simply means that we should be skeptical of government attempts to regulate speech. That used to be an uncontroversial and nonideological point. What’s now being called the libertarian position on speech was in the 1960s the liberal position on speech.”

Maybe it would be more appropriate to say that, for the last 50 years or so, a free speech absolutist position has been uncontroversial and nonideological, one of the areas where Democrats and Republicans could often (not always) agree. But that seems to be changing. The interesting thing about the Times article is that it says that the Republicans, or conservatives, are making free speech into a controversial issue. That doesn't hold water, though. If Republicans are simply standing by the free speech absolutism that characterized mainstream thought on both sides of the aisle for a couple of generations, then when people like Kagan find such absolutism to be a "weaponizing" of the First Amendment, they are the ones who are making free speech ideological.

But let's be precise. Free speech always was ideological; it is part of the American civil religion. But the left's commitment to its own ideological "religion" seems to be getting the upper hand.

And an increasingly conservative judiciary has been more than a little receptive to this [libertarian] argument. A new analysis prepared for The New York Times found that the Supreme Court under Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. has been far more likely to embrace free-speech arguments concerning conservative speech than liberal speech. That is a sharp break from earlier eras.

Again, if, rather suddenly, many more conservative-joined majority decisions are based on free speech rights, that does not necessarily mean that the "sharp break" was due to an unusual, newly radicalized conservative jurisprudence. It could be just as well understood as a reaction to a spate of speech-squelching lawmaking such as the California law forcing Christian "crisis pregnancy centers" to advertise abortion options. So why suppose that it is the conservatives who have made a "sharp break"? Ironically, the next thing the Times says is that it is thinkers on the left who have, strikingly, changed their minds about free speech:

“The left was once not just on board but leading in supporting the broadest First Amendment protections,” said Floyd Abrams, a prominent First Amendment lawyer and a supporter of broad free-speech rights. “Now the progressive community is at least skeptical and sometimes distraught at the level of First Amendment protection which is being afforded in cases brought by litigants on the right.”

Many on the left have traded an absolutist commitment to free speech for one sensitive to the harms it can inflict.

Take pornography and street protests. Liberals were once largely united in fighting to protect sexually explicit materials from government censorship. Now many on the left see pornography as an assault on women’s rights.

In 1977, many liberals supported the right of the American Nazi Party to march among Holocaust survivors in Skokie, Ill. Far fewer supported the free-speech rights of the white nationalists who marched last year in Charlottesville, Va.

This traditional support of free speech, by the way, has been perhaps the single strongest point of agreement between libertarianism in particular and progressivism. But apparently no longer. And so, just as progressives sometimes say that libertarianism is "naïve," now, all of a sudden, the Times can approvingly quote a law professor saying that traditional free speech absolutism is "naïve":

There was a certain naïveté in how liberals used to approach free speech, said Frederick Schauer, a law professor at the University of Virginia.

“Because so many free-speech claims of the 1950s and 1960s involved anti-obscenity claims, or civil rights and anti-Vietnam War protests, it was easy for the left to sympathize with the speakers or believe that speech in general was harmless,” he said. “But the claim that speech was harmless or causally inert was never true, even if it has taken recent events to convince the left of that. The question, then, is why the left ever believed otherwise.”

But this is, surely, a paradoxical thing to say. How can it be naïve to be a free speech absolutist, if that jurisprudence held sway for generations? After all, plainly, many free speech rules and policies were implemented. Just as plainly, generations of the most brilliant legal minds were free speech absolutists. It was and remains the Constitutional policy of the nation, as evidenced by the fact that the Supremes unanimously rejected hate speech laws again last year. But Prof. Schauer is pleased to call this policy "naïve" because that is how the snooty law professors who know better than the rest of us prefer to persuade the readers of the Times. All he really means, of course, is that he and his fellow snooty professors now take the cool and edgy position, that of the clearly more enlightened Europeans, that free speech is not "all that," after all.

The article next introduces some just shoddy academic theorizing, in an attempt to justify speech control and censorship:

Some liberals now say that free speech disproportionately protects the powerful and the status quo.

“When I was younger, I had more of the standard liberal view of civil liberties,” said Louis Michael Seidman, a law professor at Georgetown. “And I’ve gradually changed my mind about it. What I have come to see is that it’s a mistake to think of free speech as an effective means to accomplish a more just society.”

To the contrary, free speech reinforces and amplifies injustice, Catharine A. MacKinnon, a law professor at the University of Michigan, wrote in “The Free Speech Century,” a collection of essays to be published this year.

“Once a defense of the powerless, the First Amendment over the last hundred years has mainly become a weapon of the powerful,” she wrote. “Legally, what was, toward the beginning of the 20th century, a shield for radicals, artists and activists, socialists and pacifists, the excluded and the dispossessed, has become a sword for authoritarians, racists and misogynists, Nazis and Klansmen, pornographers and corporations buying elections.”

These are strikingly bold and broad statements. You'd expect a pundit to be making them rather than college professors. It's a mistake to think that free speech contributes to a more just society? Really? It's a "weapon of the powerful"?

I'll get back to the weaponizing thing in a moment, but I'd like to point out that the Times is presenting these two campus radicals as liberals. That's ridiculous. They are both theorists of the far left, purveyors of so-called critical legal studies; MacKinnon considers herself a "post-Marxist." Such people are leftists and not liberals.

Besides, the notion that people who attack American traditions of free speech and First Amendment are liberal, of all things, is patently absurd. If you are so skeptical of free speech absolutism, then you're not a liberal for that reason alone: what is more essential to American liberalism than strong commitment to free speech?

Now let me briefly discuss this notion that free speech is a "weapon of the powerful." To be sure, the powerful have free speech rights, and like it or not, their power gives them the ability to exercise those rights more broadly and effectively than the weak. Welcome to earth; that's nothing new, it will never change, and it becomes much, much worse whenever a radical leftist regime takes over. The obvious fact the powerful enjoy free speech rights, however, does not establish that free speech is not also a deeply important right of the weak. It is, after all, the rights of minorities and of the disempowered that most need protection by the law, considering that the powerful can usually take care of themselves.

There's a striking irony in the article's own examples. They all, with the sole exception of Citizens United, feature the rights of the ordinary, weak citizen protected from the depredations of some of the most powerful governments on earth. Don't believe me?

Relatively weak religious organizations (the National Institute of Family and Life Advocates' total national expenditures for 2009: $759,259) came under attack by the enormously powerful government of California; it was the First Amendment, as interpreted by the SCOTUS majority, that protected their freedom of speech and religion. Nazis and Klansmen are surely some of the most hated and disempowered people in the country at present (and yay for that); like it or not, equality before the law means they have the same speech rights as more decent people. Principled laborers, just regular people, who do not want to support the Democratic principles of their company's unions, were supported against organized union power (and the Democratic government power enmeshed with it). And pornography? Well, to be sure, pornographers can be powerful, but only a very few of them. Most of those who produce and consume porn are not particularly rich or powerful. They're just horny little guys with rights. The free speech rights of the rich and powerful are, by contrast, well protected.

In the great First Amendment cases in the middle of the 20th century, few conservatives spoke up for the protection of political dissenters, including communists and civil rights leaders, comedians using vulgar language on the airwaves or artists exploring sexuality in novels and on film.

In 1971, Robert H. Bork, then a prominent conservative law professor and later a federal judge and Supreme Court nominee, wrote that the First Amendment should be interpreted narrowly in a law-review article that remains one of the most-cited of all time.

“Constitutional protection should be accorded only to speech that is explicitly political,” he wrote. “There is no basis for judicial intervention to protect any other form of expression, be it scientific, literary or that variety of expression we call obscene or pornographic.”

Yes, the conservatives of fifty years ago were awful on First Amendment rights, and a stalwart of that brand was rejected Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork. Bork's principle, that the First Amendment protects only political speech and not also creative works, was awful and repressive, if refreshingly honest. Bork was the sort of jurist only an arch-conservative could love. So it is amazing that a Times reporter would have the temerity to mention Bork in the context of this article, considering just how loathed he was by the liberals of yesteryear. It's just extraordinary that Bork's principle, which was no doubt considered grotesque by Times readers in the 80s and 90s, might be quoted approvingly in this context and without any comment on Bork's famous history.

I won't quote the entire section, but the article argues that Virginia State Board of Pharmacy v. Virginia Citizens Consumer Council (1975) protected "commercial speech" (such as advertising), and that, though liberals helped shape this decision, it opened up a dangerous Pandora's box of uncensored corporations:

That trend has continued, with businesses mounting First Amendment challenges to gun control laws, securities regulations, country-of-origin labels, graphic cigarette warnings and limits on off-label drug marketing.

Similarly,

Liberals also played a key role in creating modern campaign finance law in Buckley v. Valeo, the 1976 decision that struck down limits on political spending by individuals and was the basis for [the deeply-hated] Citizens United, the 2010 decision that did away with similar limits for corporations and unions.

So, to be sure, the law has protected the rich and powerful. As well it should. They do have rights that, like it or not, the law is obligated to protect.

To Professor Seidman [quoted above as having outgrown commitment to free speech], cases like these were part of what he describes as a right-wing takeover of the First Amendment since the liberal victories in the years Chief Justice Earl Warren led the Supreme Court.

“With the receding of Warren court liberalism, free-speech law took a sharp right turn,” Professor Seidman wrote in a new article to be published in the Columbia Law Review. “Instead of providing a shield for the powerless, the First Amendment became a sword used by people at the apex of the American hierarchy of power. Among its victims: proponents of campaign finance reform, opponents of cigarette addiction, the L.B.G.T.Q. community, labor unions, animal rights advocates, environmentalists, targets of hate speech and abortion providers.”

The title of the article asked, “Can Free Speech Be Progressive?”

“The answer,” the article said, “is no.”

That question and answer--res ipsa loquitur! It sounds like an unfair criticism of the left that conservative culture warriors might have made in the 90s. But here is someone presented as an educated liberal who has arrived at an enlightened, cutting-edge view and worthy of special mention in the Times.

I didn't have time to read Seidman's paper all the way through, but I had a look; it argues that the First Amendment is used as a "sword" by "people at the apex of the American hierarchy of power." Free speech, he argues, is all right to the extent that it "can advance progressive goals." The problem is that the First Amendment can also undermine those same goals (even if correctly interpreted, apparently). As an argument against free speech absolutism, this is stunning. This writer, this law professor, appears to think it would be adequate grounds for an attack or defense of freedom of speech that the speech advanced or undermined progressive goals--as if there really were no more to it than that. "Just ask yourself," I imagine him saying, "is the principle convenient for our ideology?" This is clearly unscholarly and utterly risible. I can only hope that I have misunderstood the article. To me, it really did read as a parody of a party hack who has decided to try to write a law review paper. Decide for yourself. But to go on with the Times article:

The right turn has been even more pronounced under Chief Justice Roberts.

The Supreme Court has agreed to hear a larger share of First Amendment cases concerning conservative speech than earlier courts had, according to the study prepared for The Times. And it has ruled in favor of conservative speech at a higher rate than liberal speech as compared to earlier courts.

Has the Roberts court ruled more in favor of "conservative speech"? Maybe, maybe not; but surely "conservative speech" and "liberal speech" alike deserve protection. That much, I would have thought, is absolutely obvious. Yet the Times writer seems not to think so, and in this he follows Seidman, who (it seems) confuses partisanship for scholarship.

Suppose it's true that the Supremes have recently protected conservative speech more than progressive speech. That could be due to the random patterns in the data; the sample sizes (of Supreme Court free speech cases) are surely too small to show statistical significance. It could also be, once again, because conservative speech has come under attack.

But even if the Supremes have recently been unfairly favoring conservative speech, even if they have given conservatives prerogatives not given to progressives, it still does not follow,  and it obviously does not follow--an inference the article writer didn't notice he was making--that, somehow, free speech absolutism is now suddenly only a "conservative" position. Our journalist draws the inference anyway:

The court led by Chief Justice Earl Warren from 1953 to 1969 was almost exclusively concerned with cases concerning liberal speech. Of its 60 free-expression cases, only five, or about 8 percent, challenged the suppression of conservative speech.

The proportion of challenges to restrictions on conservative speech has steadily increased. It rose to 22 percent in the court led by Chief Justice Warren E. Burger from 1969 to 1986; to 42 percent in the court led by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist from 1986 to 2005; and to 65 percent in the Roberts court.

Even putting aside my earlier points, this argument is bizarre. Cases protecting conservative speech have risen, from 1969 until today, from 22%, to 42%, to 65% today. The latter number is supposed to establish that freedom of speech is now a "conservative" issue? Consider that in 1969, the number was 22%. Would it have been reasonable, at that time, to conclude that conservatives shouldn't shouldn't have cared at all about free speech, that they were justified in being soft on free speech rights? That's absurd.

Speaking as a former academic--a teacher of logic and critical thinking as well as philosophy of law--I have to say the quality of argumentation here is just depressing. Refuting this sort of thing isn't even fun. And this is the New York frickin' Times. It's impossible to believe that even Justice Kagan would support the partisan hackery on display in the Times article and the law review article.

Indeed, the Supremes are more interesting. You gotta love Supreme Court opinions; they're often well argued, even if they're wrong, and they're so earnest (as they should be!):

On Wednesday, in announcing the decision on public unions, Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. said the court was applying settled and neutral First Amendment principles to protect workers from being forced to say things at odds with their beliefs. He suggested that the decision on public unions should have been unanimous.

“Compelling individuals to mouth support for views they find objectionable violates that cardinal constitutional command, and in most contexts, any such effort would be universally condemned,” he wrote. “Suppose, for example, that the State of Illinois required all residents to sign a document expressing support for a particular set of positions on controversial public issues — say, the platform of one of the major political parties. No one, we trust, would seriously argue that the First Amendment permits this.”

Alito's argument makes a great deal of sense to me, for what it's worth. That's a cogent analogical argument. To be sure, it's just an outline of an argument; see the opinion for the details.

In response, Justice Kagan said the court’s conservatives had found a dangerous tool, “turning the First Amendment into a sword.” The United States, she said, should brace itself.

“Speech is everywhere — a part of every human activity (employment, health care, securities trading, you name it),” she wrote. “For that reason, almost all economic and regulatory policy affects or touches speech. So the majority’s road runs long. And at every stop are black-robed rulers overriding citizens’ choices.”

Speech is everywhere, Kagan rightly observes, and with a few traditional exceptions, every bit of it is protected by the First Amendment. The First Amendment's influence does indeed run long, and so it should.

That final sentence, though--well, it's preposterous. "Black-robed rulers" are doing what fearsome thing? By God, they're "overriding citizens' choices"! How dare they! But those "choices" are the laws and regulations passed by powerful government officials, i.e., they are the exercise of government power to censor or even--as in the case of the pregnancy centers--to compel speech. Good God, these black-robed rulers are curtailing the exercise of government power! Somebody stop them!

Anyway, that's the article. It's no big surprise to me that the Times has come out against free speech absolutism, declaring it to be a conservative position, something good progressives ought to resist. But it's dismaying to see it there in black and white. Our world has changed.

By the way, there is almost no mention of hate speech in the article. This is probably it's harder to make the legal case for restrictions on hate speech. The Supreme Court agreed just last year--unanimously--that hate speech is protected, that "ideas that offend" are protected by the First Amendment. You gotta love old liberals. But since the left, especially the young left, is becoming increasingly radical on the issue, I'm still quite apprehensive. After all, the Times has all but declared censorship and compelled speech to be progressive.

So I fully expect there to be growing calls for laws against hate speech in the United States. Support on the American left for such laws is already huge. According to a Cato Institute survey, while "just" 40% of Americans favor banning hate speech--that's actually a lot considering we're talking about doing away with the First Amendment--fully 52% of Democrats (i.e., most of them) support such laws. The number goes up to 61% of Democrats, if we specify that the laws protect black Americans against hate speech. Maybe more troubling is that 66% of Democrats believe hate speech is "violent"; if you believe that, then of course it's a short step to conclude that speech should be banned (as we ban other forms of violence). Interestingly, Cato also asked for Americans' views on the relevant constitutional question; it turns out that 56% of Americans believe that banning hate speech is consistent with the First Amendment. Good thing they aren't on the Supreme Court.

Free speech on campus has increasingly come under attack recently. One of the most telling numbers from the Cato survey was that 68% of students support a confidential "bias reporting system," i.e., they complacently imagine that it's a good idea that there be campus speech monitors, assisted by student informants. Almost as stunning is the fact that 48% of all Americans support such a totalitarian system as well. That's incredibly depressing.

Even if the Supremes remain free speech absolutists for another generation, the left's intensified attack on free speech is deeply consequential. The next presidents might very well include socialists who replace Ginsberg, Breyer, Thomas, and Alito with radical free speech skeptics. It's easy to imagine Kagan and Sotomayor moving more and more in the direction of free speech skepticism.

Besides, not everything depends on the Court. Formerly mainstream Democrats are showing themselves to be increasingly willing to take extreme action. It's not that hard to imagine an independent California with hate speech laws stronger than any in Europe.

Due to its central role in protecting popular sovereignty in a republic, free speech is as important as it gets. The fact that the left is repudiating its former free speech absolutism is much more important than its decision to push for gay marriage. It's probably more important even than immigration or gun control. It's fundamental; it goes to the root of our system.

Free speech skepticism could easily become de rigueur on the left, as gay marriage rights have become. That is actually what I would expect, because if there is one thing that animates progressives today, it is contempt, even utter hatred, for anything they perceive as racist, sexist, homophobic, or anti-immigrant. So powerful is this animus that "reasonable" restrictions of hate speech can be easily sold to them as just good sense. To make matters worse, progressive judgment about what is bigoted in these ways is sometimes inaccurate. "Racist" and "sexist," often used as cudgels in debate, would be "weaponized" indeed by hate speech laws.

So what's a free speech absolutist to do? Well, if you support free speech, push back as effectively as you can when you see your friends and acquaintances moving in the direction of free speech skepticism. This is still a battle for hearts and minds. The Supreme Court frequently follows popular opinion, and there's sadly no reason to think that a future Court might not dismantle many current First Amendment protections.

Learn the arguments; the case for free speech is very strong. There is no intellectually respectable case to be made for censorship. Even from the point of view of cost-benefit analysis, the benefits of tolerating "hate speech" and eschewing compelled speech are substantial, and the downsides are minimal; the risks of censorship and compelled speech are enormous (totalitarianism, the decline of free inquiry). It is, in short, obscene to treat free speech as a mere "tool" that is "weaponized," when censorship and compelled speech throughout history have been very real weapons that have shored up authoritarian and totalitarian regimes.


Positivity and motivation

One thing that almost nobody knows about me is how much time I've spent on self-analysis of one sort or another. I'm deeply impressed by people who are more motivated and self-disciplined than I am, and I frequently try to get to the bottom of the many issues surrounding self-discipline.

Recently I've been toying with the notion that optimism is an important attitudinal key to high motivation. But the more I think about it, the more I think it is not optimism but positivity that matters. These are different. A rough gloss of "optimism" is "the habit of estimating the probability of future events turning out well." By contrast, I'd say "positivity" means "the habit of evaluating one's own achievements and situation, and those of other people, highly." Obviously, this is a vague thing. But if you "look on the bright side," you're positive; if you're depressive and regard your achievements as worthless and your situation as bleak, you're negative.

So, yes, I'm thinking that Norman Vincent Peale's Power of Positive Thinking was right all along. This is also consistent with the fact that cognitive therapy (which is all about replacing negative thoughts with positive ones) is so helpful.

I know people who say they are depressed who nevertheless do work hard. I'm not saying that positivity is perfectly correlated with motivation (or hard work). But as I look back on my own life, at the times that I worked the hardest, I was always at the time quite proud of my work or progress, and more or less satisfied with my circumstances. Was that because I happened to be working harder or producing more at the time? Actually, no. There were other times in my life when I also happened to work hard and get stuff done, but I was dissatisfied with my progress. No--I think I was, at those times, simply focused on the positive. That suggests a hypothesis.

I'll be 50 in a few weeks, and I have thought a great deal about this sort of thing, but I'm not sure I have ever entertained this precise hypothesis: When I am quite positive, i.e., when I dismiss self-criticism and instead take pride in my work (and my circumstances, i.e., "looking on the bright side" of whatever comes my way), then I do happen to be unusually well motivated and hard-working. Positivity causes high motivation. Dwelling on the bright side is a sufficient but not necessary condition for wanting to get stuff done.

It's not optimism about the future that matters most to motivation. It's positivity. Optimism means evaluating the probability of future desired events highly. But if you're in a blue funk, then even if you think it's very likely that you'll achieve x if you set out to do x, you'll be less likely to care about x, or be motivated by the prospect. But if you're quite positive, if you dwell long and hard on how wonderful it will be to achieve x, and you generally look on the bright side regardless, that can be enough to overcome a sober estimate that your chances of success are relatively low.

So I'm going to try this out. There's no great method to follow, however. What I'm describing here is an attitude, not an activity. If you're persuaded by what I've written, and want to try it out with me, then it seems to me what you need to do is reflect on everything in your life--your job, your relationships, your material circumstances, everything--and remind yourself of all of the most positive aspects of it all. Then keep those aspects in mind, and going forward, as you encounter new circumstances and talk with folks, make an effort to dwell on the most positive aspects. If you get a B and you wanted an A, reflect that it's not a C; that the course was difficult; that it is, after all, just one grade; etc. If you finish a piece of work you're proud of and nobody else seems to notice, don't let that stop you from taking pride in your work. And let your attitude come out. If you feel like saying to a coworker, "I really killed it," referring to your job, they'll probably support you if they're decent.

I'm not saying you should be conceited or narcissistic. Don't take other people down a peg just because you start getting more positive about yourself. I also think you should be positive with respect to other people, their qualities and their achievements. If someone says they finished something important, praise them. You might find someone's politics annoying, but don't let that stop you from liking or admiring him or her. Remind yourself that politics are just one not-very-important aspect of a person's life, and that your friend is, after all, very accomplished in this or that way, or funny, or pretty, or whatever their positive traits might be. This will make it easier for you to be more genuinely positive about yourself.

Let me know what you think in the comments.


Why do I get so much work done on airplanes?

Riding in planes ain't so bad. I wholeheartedly believe they're safer than cars--and this is the one actual advantage of having short legs. So I don't mind riding in planes. Maybe, I admit, I even look forward to it a little. But more important than that, I usually get quite a bit of work done on planes. It's surely the lack of distractions, right? No Internet, no family, no workmates, no phone calls, just me and my laptop (or book).

But perhaps there's more than just a lack of distractions that accounts for my productivity while aloft: maybe it's also a sense of agency or freedom. Nobody's about to tell me what to do, and I know it. I have a block of hours that I know I can dispose of in just the way I like. I might be crammed in a 31" (average legroom) by 16.5" (average width) box by rapacious airlines with razor-thin profit margins, but my ability to control my time is positively liberating.

Distraction and lack of agency are both rather puzzling. They seem to be wholly psychological. What, really, is the difference between me sitting at my workstation at home and doing some work and sitting with a laptop in a plane seat? There seems to be nothing more than an awareness that certain things are possible--that I might choose to do something that would (sadly) distract me, or that someone might ask me to do something or interrupt me. I personally lack the ability to turn off that awareness; I can't as it were put myself into airplane mode. But that inability is simply a decision I make. It's not a bad think that I make it. I don't want to be the sort of person who "gives zero f***s." But riding in an airplane cuts us off, temporarily. And that seems to be a good thing, sometimes, for me anyway.


Is it time to move from social media to blogs?

This began as a Twitter thread.

I've finally put my finger on a thing that annoys me—probably, all of us—about social media. When we check in on our friends and colleagues and what they're sharing, we are constantly bombarded with simplistic attacks on our core beliefs, especially political beliefs. "This cannot stand," we say. So we respond. But it's impossible to respond in the brief and fast-paced media of Twitter and Facebook without being simplistic or glib. So the cycle of simplistic glibness never stops.

There are propagandists (and social media people...but I repeat myself) who love and thrive on this simplicity. Their messages are more plausible and easier to get upset about when stated simply and briefly. They love that. That's a feature, not a bug (they think)!

I feel like telling Tweeps and FB friends "Be more reasonable!" and "Use your brain!" and "Chill!" But again—everything seems sooooo important, because our core beliefs are under attack. How can most people be expected to be calm and reasonable? People who take high standards of politeness and methodology seriously naturally feel like quitting. But social media has become important for socializing, PR, career advancement, and (let's face it) the joy of partisanship. "I can't quit you!" we moan. But, to quote a different movie, this aggression will not stand, man. Our betters at Twitter and Facebook agree, and so they have decided to force the worst actors to play nice. But they can't be trusted to identify "the worst actors" fairly. They're choosing the winners.

What's the solution for those of us who care about truth, nuance, and decency—and free speech? I don't know, but I have an idea. Rather than letting Facebook and Twitter (and their creeping censorship) control things, I'm going to try putting content updates on my blog. I'll still use Twitter and Facebook for Everipedia announcements and talk, and I'll link to blog updates from both places. But you'll have to visit my blog to actually read my more personal content. Anyway, I'm going to give that a try.


EU copyright reform could threaten wiki encyclopedias

If we are to believe its critics, under the pending EU copyright reform legislation, the EU would implement a "link tax" across all of Europe. So if you link to a news article, for example, including a text snippet, then you'd have to pay a fee. When Spain tried this, Google News simply discontinued service in the country—that didn't go over too well.

Maybe worse, the new law would require websites that engage the public to set up review processes to proactively remove violations of copyright rules. Those of us who have designed and used collaborative and participatory websites (that'd be most of you reading this) can well understand the difficulty here: it mandates a review process. It would be against the law to follow the publish-then-filter principle that is at the core of open source and open content projects. This could be disastrous for those projects—including, of course, Everipedia and Wikipedia. Let me explain.

The current regulatory regime in the U.S. is defined to a great extent by the DMCA (Digital Millennium Copyright Act), which enables websites to declare themselves to be Internet service providers who are not directly responsible for what their users post. If they receive a "takedown request" from someone whose rights are violated—for example, someone whose copyrighted work is reproduced without permission—they must simply take the work down promptly, and the problem goes away. And of course, the DMCA has no requirements whatsoever regarding hyperlinks. (Why on earth would it?)

But under the new EU regime, the Internet wouldn't work that way. You'd have to pay to link to news articles—that would have made Infobitt impossible (among many more). And whenever you designed a form allowing a user to upload information for public consumption, you'd also have to design a whole system enabling the information to be checked for copyright infringement before being posted. Web developers naturally find both ideas absolutely ridiculous, not only because of the expense and technical difficulty, but also because it would interfere with and potentially ruin the social dynamics that make the sites work properly.

Of course, Internet giants like Facebook and Twitter might be able to satisfy the requirements of the law, but so many smaller projects would not. And while Everipedia's new blockchain review process might satisfy the review mechanism requirement (see our white paper), it seems impossible that the literally millions of links from our articles could be paid for—if, as seems likely, they would have to be under the new regime. (Any link to content that is under 20 years old would have to be paid for.)

Wikipedia never would have been able to get a start under this regime. Nor would any small, independent startup. Only giant corporations would be able to satisfy the law's requirements.

But then, maybe that's the point.


The Well-Ordered Life

The well-ordered life may be defined as that set of sound beliefs and good practices which are most conducive to productivity and therefore happiness, at least insofar as as happiness depends on productivity.

The well-ordered life has several types of component: goals; projects, which naturally flow from goals, and which are essentially long-term plans; habits, or actions aimed at the goals and which one aims to do regularly; plans for the day or week; assessments, or evaluating the whole, or stock-taking; and, different from all of these, a set of beliefs and states of attention that support the whole.

Let me explain the general theory behind the claim that the beliefs and practices I have in mind do, in fact, conduce to productivity and thus happiness. There is a way to live, which many of us have practiced at least from time to time and which some people practice quite a lot, which has been variously described as “peak performance,” “getting things done,” “self-discipline,” or as I will put it, a “well-ordered life.”

This generally involves really accepting, really believing in, certain of what might be called life goals. If you do not believe in these goals, the whole thing breaks down. Next, flowing from these goals, you must embrace certain projects; the projects must be broad and long-term, meaning they incorporate many different activities but have a definite end point. These must be tractable and perfectly realistic, and again, you must be fully “on board” with the wisdom of these projects. Projects can include things like writing a paper, working through a tutorial, writing a large computer program, and much more, depending on your career.

This background—your global goals and your significant, big projects—is the backdrop for your daily life. If this backdrop is not well-ordered, then your daily life will fall apart. If you lose faith in your goals, little everyday activities will be hard to do. Similarly, if you decide that a certain project does not serve your goals, you will not be able to motivate yourself to take actions. So you must guard your commitment to your goals and projects jealously, and if it starts to get shaky, you need to reassess as soon as possible.

Your daily life is structured by three main things: habits, plans, and assessments. Your habits are like the structure of your day. They can and probably should include a schedule and are regular activities that move you toward the completion of a project. Plans are like the content of your day. The habits and schedule might give you an outline, but you still need to think through how to flesh out the outline. Finally, there are assessments, which can be done at the same time as plans are done, but which involve evaluating your past performance, introspecting about how you feel about everything, and frankly squashing irrational thoughts that are getting in the way.

Such a life is well-ordered because projects flow from goals, while habits, plans, and assessments are all in service of the projects and, through them, the goals. It is a system with different parts; but the parts all take place in your life, meaning they at bottom take the form of beliefs and actions that you strongly identify with and that actually make up who you are.

This then leads to the last element of the well-ordered life: beliefs that support the whole. As we move through life, we are not in direct control of our beliefs or even most of our actions. We find ourselves believing things or with attitudes that we do not wish or that even surprise or dismay us. These beliefs can greatly support a well-ordered life, but they can also undermine it entirely. If you believe a goal is entirely unattainable, or a project undoable, you will probably lack the motivation needed to pursue it.

This is why assessment, or stock-taking, is so important if you are to maintain a well-ordered life, especially if you tend to be depressed or nervous or your self-confidence is low. You need to explore and, as it were, tidy up your mind.

You should expel any notion that self-discipline is a matter of luck, as if some people have it and others don’t. It is also an error to think self-discipline is a matter of remembering some brilliant insight you or someone else had, or staying in the right frame of mind. Indeed, self-discipline is not any one thing at all. It is, as I said, a system, with various working parts.

It is true that some people just rather naturally fall into the good habits and beliefs that constitute the well-ordered life. But the vast majority of us do not. The better you understand these parts, bear them in mind, and work on them until the whole thing is a finely-tuned machine, the more control you’ll have over your life. This is not easy and, like any complex system, a lot can go wrong. That’s why it’s so necessary to take stock and plan.


How to crowdsource videos via a shared video channel

I got to talking to one of my colleagues here at Everipedia, the encyclopedia of everything, where I am now CIO, about future plans. I had the following idea.

We could create an Everipedia channel--basically, just a YouTube account, but owned by Everipedia and devoted to regularly posting new videos.

We could invite people to submit videos to us; if they're approved, we put branding elements on them and post them. We share some significant amount of the monetization (most of it) with the creator.

We also feature the videos at the top of the Everipedia article about the topic.

Who knows what could happen, but what I  hope would happen is that we'd get a bunch of subscribers, because of all the connections of the video makers (and Everipedia--we collectively have a lot of followers and a lot of traffic). And the more people we got involved, the greater the competition and the better the videos would be.

There are still huge opportunities in the educational video space--so many topics out there simply have no good free videos available.

Others must have organized group channels like this before, but I can't think of who.

What do you think?


Could God have evolved?

1. How a common argument for the existence of God failed—or did it?

As a philosophy instructor, I often taught the topic of arguments for the existence of God. One of the most common arguments, called the argument from design or teleological argument, in one formulation compares God to a watchmaker.

If you were walking along a beach and found some complex machine that certainly appeared to be designed by someone, which did something amazing, then you'd conclude that it had a maker. But here we are in a universe that exhibits far more complexity and design than any machine we've ever devised. Therefore, the universe has a maker as well; we call it God.

This is sometimes called the Watchmaker Argument—since the mechanism our beachcomber finds is usually a watch—and is attributed to William Paley. Variations on this theme could be the single most commonly-advanced argument for God.

The reason the Watchmaker Argument doesn't persuade a lot of philosophers—and quite a few scientists and atheists generally—is that all the purported signs of design can be found in the biological world, and if biological complexity and appearance of design can be explained by natural selection, then God is no longer needed as an explanatory tool.

Some skeptics go a bit further and say that all the minds we have experience of are woefully inadequate for purposes of designing the complexity of life. Therefore, not only are natural mechanisms another explanation, they are a much better explanation, as far as our own experience of minds and designing is concerned.

But here I find myself skeptical of these particular skeptics.

2. Modern technology looks like magic

Recently, probably because I've been studying programming and am understanding the innards of technology better than ever, it has occurred to me very vividly that we may not be able to properly plumb the depths of what minds are capable of achieving. After all, imagine what a medieval peasant would make of modern technology. As lovers of technology often say, it would look like magic, and we would look like gods.

We've been working at this scientific innovation thing for only a few centuries, and we've been aggressively and intelligently innovating technology for maybe one century. Things we do now in 2017 are well into the realm of science fiction of 1917. We literally cannot imagine what scientific discovery and technological innovation will make available to us after 500 or 1000 years. Now let's suppose there are advanced civilizations in the galaxy that have been around for a million years.

Isn't it now hackneyed to observe that life on Earth could be a failed project of some super-advanced alien schoolchild? After all, we already are experimenting with genetic engineering, a field that is ridiculously young. As we unlock the secrets of life, who's to say we will not be able to engineer entirely different types of life, every bit as complex as the life we find on Earth, and to merge with our inventions?

Now, what havoc should these reflections wreak on our religious philosophy?

3. Could an evolved superbeing satisfy the requirements of our religions?

The scientific atheist holds the physical universe in great reverence, as something that exists in its full complexity far beyond the comprehension of human beings. The notion of a primitive "jealous God" of primitive religions is thought laughable, in the face of the immense complexity of the universe that this God is supposed to have created. Our brains are just so much meat, limited and fallible. The notion that anything like us might have created the universe is ridiculous.

Yet it is in observing the development of science and technology, thinking about how we ourselves might be enhanced by that science and technology, that we might come to an opposite conclusion. Perhaps the God of nomadic tent-dwellers couldn't design the universe. But what if there is some alien race that has evolved past where we are now for millions of years. Imagine that there is a billion-year-old superbeing. Is such a being possible? Consider the invention, computability, genetic engineering, and technological marvels we're witnessing today. Many sober heads think the advent of AI may usher in the Singularity within a few decades. What happens a millions years after that? Could the being or beings that evolve create moons? Planets? Suns? Galaxies? Universes?

And why couldn't such a superbeing turn out to be the God of the nomadic tent-dwellers?

Atheists are wrong to dismiss the divine if they do so on grounds that no gods are sufficiently complex to create everything we see around us. They believe in evolution and they see technology evolving all around us. Couldn't god-like beings have evolved elsewhere and gotten here? Could we, after sufficient time, evolve into god-like beings ourselves?

What if it turns out that the advent of the Singularity has the effect of joining us all to the Godhead that is as much technological as it is physical and spiritual? And suppose that's what, in reality, satisfies the ancient Hebrew notions of armageddon and heaven, and the Buddhist notion of nirvana. And suppose that, when that time comes, it is the humble, faithful, just, generous, self-denying, courageous, righteous, respectful, and kind people that are accepted into this union, while the others are not.

4. But I'm still an agnostic

These wild speculations aren't enough to make me any less of an agnostic. I still don't see evidence that God exists, or that the traditional (e.g., Thomistic) conception of God is even coherent or comprehensible. For all we know, the universe is self-existing and life on Earth evolved, and that's all the explanation we should ever expect for anything.

But these considerations do make me much more impressed by the fact that we do not understand how various minds in the universe might evolve, or might have evolved, and how they might have already interacted with the universe we know. There are facts about these matters about which we are ignorant, and the scientific approach is to withhold judgment about them until the data are in.