Appearing on a panel September 23 at the Heritage Foundation, National Review’s Kevin Williamson made the following observation (per the account of MSNBC.com’s Suzy Khimm): “ ‘The left is intellectually dead, and where it’s heading towards is authoritarianism,’ said Williamson, citing a Gawker blog post making the case for arresting climate change deniers.”
New York magazine’s Jonathan Chait would have none of this. He responded by chastising Williamson with the sarcastic headline “How a Single Gawker Rant Portended the End of Freedom in America.” Chait’s basic thesis is that Williamson is paranoid and that arresting climate change deniers “is not necessarily indicative of broader strains of liberal thought.” Indeed, Chait says Williamson is both paranoid and obsessed. Chait points out that Williamson has referenced this particular Gawker column (which Chait also disapproves of) no less than five times. However, three of those times were back in April, when the Gawker column first ran and was being widely discussed. The last two times Williamson mentioned it were on National Review Online on September 22 and at the Heritage event the next day.
Left unmentioned by Chait was that, also on September 22, Robert F. Kennedy Jr., the liberal scion best known for being one of the leading lights of the vaccines-cause-autism movement, accused global warming deniers of “treason” and lamented there was no law that could be used to put them in jail. In his discussion of the Gawker column, Williamson was hardly pulling a rabbit out of a hat. The creeping authoritarianism of the left was all too timely and relevant thanks to RFK Jr.’s disturbing outburst. Chait was later forced to update his post acknowledging the RFK Jr. outburst, though he did not back off his charge that Williamson was saying that authoritarian impulses “encapsulate the predominant current in contemporary liberal thought.”
Of course, Williamson never said it was the “predominant current” in liberalism. It is a common enough trope to merit comment, however. Perhaps Chait should read what his own readers are saying under his post. “Climate change kills—their denial and active fight against making reforms is indirectly killing people. While I don’t agree with arresting them, I can see how that would be legally justified—it could be considered non-protected speech, like yelling ‘fire!’ in a crowded -theater,” notes one of the New York magazine commenters. Chait, of course, is in no way accountable for the fan base he draws, but the comment is notable for two reasons. One, it sounds relatively sober even if the underlying sentiment is terrifying, and two, shouting fire in a crowded theater was the exact reference Adam Weinstein invoked in his objectionable Gawker column last March.
Though the context is often forgotten, “shouting fire in a crowded theater” was the rationale Supreme Court justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. used in a 1919 ruling concluding that a defendant’s speech in opposition to the draft during World War I was not protected by the First Amendment and was a violation of the sweeping and unconstitutional Espionage Act. Indeed, thanks to Woodrow Wilson’s Espionage and Sedition Acts, thousands were arrested for thoughtcrimes. Wilson is, of course, the godfather of America’s progressive movement.
Wanting people who disagree with you arrested may not be the “predominant current” of today’s progressives. But the authoritarian impulse is enough of a hallmark of progressivism that it’s not something to be hastily dismissed, either. Especially when this sentiment is still being echoed on websites read by millions and uttered by representatives of American liberalism’s most famous political dynasty.